Who Calls Boards To Account?

The drawn out saga about the new ARL commission points up comparisons with other sports. Most are now set up with reasonably independent boards – eg AFL, Rugby Union, Soccer etc – while cricket is in the process of modernising its structure.

Greyhound racing has moved slowly but steadily down this road – with two glaring exceptions.

Five of the six states now have board members who are more or less independent of clubs or other vested interests. Unfortunately, in two of those – Queensland and Tasmania – a single member represents greyhounds on a multi-code board, thereby posing queries about the code’s future influence.

In WA the overarching authority, RWWA, is non-denominational in theory but the gallops are well entrenched. (GRWA, which runs the three tracks, is effectively a club reporting to RWWA). The other two states, Victoria and SA, have boards fully dedicated to greyhound racing.

Of course, all are also subject to Ministerial whims and preferences to one degree or another, and to changes in the colour of the government.

The major exception is NSW where the most board members are hopelessly conflicted due to their affiliation to clubs or club groups. That process is defined in law. Justice will never be seen to be done there, no matter how hard they try. Reform is long overdue.

But just as big a problem is that the national body – Greyhounds Australasia Ltd – is made up of ex officio state representatives, who are therefore tempted to blow their own trumpets when deciding on any action. No independence there.

It might be said that GALtd has no real power anyway, so therefore it does not matter much. But while GALtd confines itself to “regulatory” matters that still leaves the way open for pigeon-holing any subject or generally delaying action. A classic case was the introduction of the green rug (replacing the brown), a change which took nearly three years to discuss and implement, one state after the other.

The Australian Institute of Sport deplores the concept of state by state representation on national boards, noting that such organisations produce worse outcomes than those with independent membership.

Bringing about a switch from state to independent membership would simply be a matter of the current board choosing to do so. Courageous, you say? Well, perhaps, but it’s nothing more than the original VFL board did when deciding to foster the establishment of a nationally-based AFL nearly two decades ago. Similarly, several existing interests will take a step back as the Rugby League change occurs.

That’s statesmanship for you. And what a success it has been for the AFL!

In any event, why does GALtd not take a broader approach? There is no reason why it should not address commercial matters if it wants to (and all the better to negotiate with powerful TABs or SKY, for example). The parallel thoroughbred racing group (Australian Racing Board) is certainly more expansive. Its vigorous opposition to the licensing of Betfair was a case in point, albeit a silly one.

In either case, what they actually discuss and whatever decisions they reach are more often than not a secret. Minutes are not published, media releases rare. In effect, they are responsible to no-one. By comparison, the Reserve Bank is a gossip factory.

The test, of course, is how well a board performs. Does it make profits (or at least annual surpluses)? Does it progress the industry? Does it increase the worth of its assets? And so on.

It’s hard to find much evidence of reports, favourable or otherwise, on how our various boards have performed. Betting turnover is one measure but even that is dubious because of the many outside or artificial influences on the total. Attendances are meaningless when 99% of the action takes place outside the racecourse.

Questions which need answers include:

Why has there been a decline in average field quality?
Why are average field numbers declining?
Why so little action to fix disruptive (dangerous?) tracks?
Why is there no formal investigation into track design principles?
Why is the proportion of genuine stayers declining?
What is the worth of the increasing proportion of short races?
What is the return on investment of breeding subsidy programs?
What is the effect of the breed’s changing physiological profile?
Why is the proportion of serious punters in decline?
What is the (changing) attitude to greyhound racing in the general public?

And, to top off this list, why is there no discussion or flow of information on these subjects to and from the public?

In essence, these are the sort of questions that directors of Woolworths or BHP might ask their managements in similar circumstances. That’s what they are paid to do and it’s what their shareholders expect. Indeed, failure to do just that leaves them legally liable for any shortcoming. That issue has come up more than once in company reviews by ASIC and others recently.

What would be interesting is an independent national audit of the industry (a better one than the error-prone Productivity Commission gambling report dreamed up recently). The stakeholders are surely entitled to that. And, given also the ongoing debates about field fees and the like, the nation’s Racing Ministers could well do with an objective viewpoint.