Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta — for members only?

Twitter is abuzz with the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame’s announcement that tickets to this year’s induction will be available to members only.

Most of the reactions I’ve seen have been negative — how dare they close their doors when Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta are being inducted!  It’s an affront to the fans!

For the most part, that criticism is off-base.

The museum is not a secret society.  Membership, just like membership to almost every other museum out there, is available to any member of the public who gives them their information and pays the fee.  Information about how to join, and the opportunity to buy memberships, is available to everyone on the website.  Individual memberships start at $50, and the Hall of Fame’s press release does not specify that tickets to the induction will be limited to only higher levels of membership, only that they will be issued on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The most legitimate criticism of this members-only policy concerns Saratoga locals who wanted to go to the induction.  For someone who lives within a short drive of the ceremony, asking $50 to join the museum in order to go to the ceremony would be something different, a significant expense over and above what they would otherwise incur to enjoy it.  Saratoga locals on a budget have a good reason to be frustrated by this policy.

But, it seems that most of the Twitter vitriol about this “members-only” policy comes from people who live nowhere near Saratoga.  Thus, a trip to the ceremony would require a plane ticket or a long drive, hotels, meals out, tickets to the races.  In light of the costs of these things, even if the trip was done (relatively) on the cheap, $50 to join the museum hardly seems an unreasonable thing to ask.  If memberships were $500 or $5,000, or getting into the ceremony required one of the highest echelons of memberships, people outside Saratoga would have a legitimate gripe.  However, the $50 price point makes it a reasonable expense for those who can already afford the luxury of a trip to the Spa.

And, the museum is a nonprofit organisation.  Based on the experiences I have had with the nonprofits with which I’ve worked over the years, fundraising is a constant struggle.  Rarely does a “sure thing” happen for a fundraiser or a membership drive — but Rachel and Zenyatta fit that bill.  People will take notice, people will join, and people will come.  From a nonprofit development perspective, this was a no-brainer.  Whether this leads to a general uptick in museum memberships after 2016 is uncertain — but it should lead to an uptick this year, and will give the museum a chance to develop and try techniques for retaining members going forward.

And for those of us who can’t make it out to Saratoga — for most of us?  They are still streaming the induction ceremony online.  Whether admission was members-only or not, most of us would be watching it that way anyway.  We can still enjoy the induction of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta from the comfort of our own homes, just as we did for Curlin, Lava Man, or any of our other favourites over the last few years.

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