Nationalise Or Bust – Part 2

Last week (in Part 1) we pointed out that betting, the lifeblood of the racing industry, was under pressure following the steady drop in the size of TAB pools. Those pools serve as a guide not just to investors but also to other operators such as online bookmakers and Betfair, sometimes directly, sometimes competitively. But their reducing size and volatility has placed that role in jeopardy, causing varying degrees of frustration amongst punters.

This is not specifically connected to the long term fall in wagering’s share of the overall gambling market, which has been extreme, but obviously there are overlaps.

A quick and obvious solution would be to amalgamate the pools, while still allowing various administrations to do their own thing about deductions, taxes and commission rates, etc. Both Tabcorp and Tatts have already indicated they are keen on this. So did a previous NSW Minister. Should they all decide to set the same rates then a single national dividend would be a good outcome. If not, then more work would be needed to adjust computer programs. Messier, but still quite feasible. Computers are very good at that stuff.

Vital though it is, combining the betting pools is far from the only subject that needs attention from a national angle. Indeed, much greater efficiencies could and should be achieved by harmonising the way racing is conducted across the country. Every other sport does it, so why not racing?

Greyhound racing has long been suffering from state jealousies, inconsistencies and anomalies. For example:

  • Grading systems are wildly different – in substance and terminology – from state to state.
  • Racing rules are nominally national in character but that has become a joke. Every state has piles and piles of local rules which countermand the national ones. (Some cover 100-plus pages).
  • Drug and other penalties vary from one to the other, as recently illustrated in the case of a trainer at Rockhampton, whose disqualification was cut by two thirds by the Queensland Administrative Tribunal, mostly on the ground of stewards’ inconsistencies.
  • Betting commissions and capital grants vary according to the whims of state governments and the business nous of numerous local racing administrators.
  • Access to betting markets depends hugely on grandfather rights to particular spots on TAB calendars and the fortunes of overcrowded calendars. Merit counts for little.
  • Through no fault of their own, states served by the smaller Tatts operation do worse than those under the Tabcorp banner. This will harm the interests of some future punters as big will tend to get bigger and small get smaller. The proportions of border hoppers will increase, physically or electronically. Nothing stays still.
  • Breeding incentives schemes vary from state to state but none of them has ever produced any positive results. All are biased to encourage local breeding rather than the most sensible breeding.
  • Prize money is similarly biased towards local greyhounds in each state.
  • Lure systems are decided by subjective feelings, state by state, even club by club, rather than by careful analysis.
  • Box styles vary from state to state, as do track design criteria, which lack both scientific discipline and often common sense as well.
  • While I hate to say so, the Wheeler firm has contributed mightily to state imbalances, propping up SA, giving Victoria a stream of free kicks in the form of all its top dogs, and ignoring the remainder. It’s hard to blame the country’s most successful owner and breeder but the facts are the facts.
  • Local administrations have been undergoing disruptions at either or both of board and management levels in all states over the past two years. Apart from the political upheaval in Queensland, the most recent is the resignation of two GWA board members following a rumoured dispute over the future of Cannington. The Minister has set up an inquiry. (Fortunately, it is a different Minister to the one who mistakenly tried to ban Betfair).
  • Unlike the Stud Book or practices in other codes, greyhounds do not have a national form database – or not one that is available to the public. It is catch-as-catch-can amongst the states with each achieving varying degrees of results, all more costly and sloppier than might be the case under a unified system. The largest system, hosted by NSW, is by far the most customer-unfriendly.

Few of these matters get any attention from our only national body, Greyhounds Australasia, because even if it did vote itself the right to consider commercial and business matters – and it has not – it would still be subject to state bias at every turn. In any case it operates secretly, with virtually no publicity. That is precisely why other major sports have turned away from those structures and moved to independent national organisations which can address modern trends objectively and adjust to changes in customer preferences.

But why are we so different? Well, the system has just grown up like Topsy – like railway gauges. It started in a relatively poor communication environment, manually operated and locally centred. Interstate travel was always a hassle, physically and financially. Roads were poor and air travel a novelty. Politically, state governments kept their distance from each other and, even today, vigorously compete to win over new companies, sometimes regardless of the end cost to taxpayers.

In the outside world, many of those matters have changed radically yet racing administrations and government racing departments are mired in 1950s structures and have paid only lip service to the potential for modernising the industry. After all, the punter can afford it, can’t he?

Well, apparently not, if the continuing change in punter profiles is any guide. More and more people don’t like what they see, the way they are treated or the declining quality of the average race field. Besides, greyhound raceclubs are paying for the dubious privilege of boosting rewards to TAB/SKY shareholders while the gallops and football interests negotiate billion dollar contracts. In any event, today’s inertia also ignores the potential to raise the bar to another level by attracting new customers and improving the quality of the product. If the AFL and NRL can do it, why not racing?

At the core, greyhound racing administrations and raceclubs have two dominant priorities; first, to survive or maybe do a little better than last year and second, to service trainers. Somebody else will look after the customers. And there are no shareholders to call the bosses to account (well, there are, but they have no voice and nobody ever asks them).

These 1950s practices do not work any more. The customers are disappearing and the survival concept ensures that, by definition, real progress will not be achieved. Standing still is not a viable option in today’s competitive world. We tried that by rebuffing NT bookies and look what happened there.

Monopoly control never works well and racing is full of it, albeit in bits and pieces.

There is only one practicable way forward and that is to cede responsibility to a national management authority, much as we did with aviation many years ago. Anybody for cheaper fares?