It all started in the late 1980s when SKY pictures of live racing arrived on the scene. It mattered little where you were, the pictures popped up all over the country — incidentally making regional and state boundaries meaningless to viewers.
That followed almost three decades of expanding betting opportunities as TABs boosted their product range and went to where the punters were. Pubs, social clubs and suburban TAB outlets came to the fore, racecourse crowds declined and with them bookmaker numbers.
Raceclubs which once spruiked to the local community and welcomed patrons to the track no longer had to bother, and many did not. Instead they got by with regular cheques from a distant TAB via their state authority. All this happened regardless of the quality of the racing they offered because, particularly from 2000 onwards, mug gamblers rapidly increased their influence. To them, only quantity mattered, not quality. Tabcorp, which controlled racing programs, wasn’t fussed either and proceeded to stuff as many events into every hour as they could, including from overseas.
All of which made raceclubs less relevant to the success of the industry sectors. Four legged poker machines were now everybody’s best friend. And the money rolled in — well, in smaller bits but it still flowed. You just had to sit back and count it. Ships laden with goodies were bearing down on every nook and cranny of the racing industry so all you had to do was to keep a neat house and goods would arrive. No charge and little effort — a classic Pacific Islands cargo cult was born, albeit one that actually worked.
With goods coming freely, it was no longer necessary for island communities to sow their crops nor for to raceclubs to cater for major maintenance or future capital investment — big brother would do that. Consequently, food soon became scarce and racetrack facilities became decrepit (something emphasised by more than one state administration, but particularly in NSW).
That made life difficult at times but it turned out that the bigger influence on prosperity was the disappearance of any sort of relationship between the customer and raceclub. Mind you, that was not a new trend. Back in the 1940s, annual reports show the chairman of the NSW Control Board (Norm Smith) had exhorted clubs to do more to promote their wares to the wider community, despite the fact they really lacked the resources to do the job. In any case, asking a string of local clubs to market the industry would have involved an inefficient use of funds. Not only did they lack the expertise but their customers now came from far and wide and were impossible to reach.
The more current trend of declining attendances (bar the occasional group) enforced a continuation of that scene. But while all this was going on, state authorities which controlled the cash failed to take up the slack.
At the same time, the removal of the interaction between local communities and greyhound racing meant a decline in knowledge. Members of the public had little idea of what made the greyhound tick or of how best to handle a bet on a race. Hence the current emergence of the mug gambler, often a refugee from the poker machines.
Fundamentally, this is why racing has been losing its share of the gambling market — from 50% some 30 years ago to around 10% now. People still patronise social clubs and pubs but their interest in wagering is spasmodic and driven only by tipsters and lucky numbers. Press a few buttons and out comes a ticket.
Equally, the long term fall in knowledge about the industry leaves the way open for special interest groups to campaign by making up their own stories and, for example, calling for a stop to all greyhound racing — and horse racing, too, in many cases. Their messages fall on a public which often has no particular interest in racing or wagering, save only for an occasional flutter as they pass through betting houses or notice an app on their I-Pad (note how Tabcorp TV advertising goes down that route now).
No wonder temporary CEO of Greyhound Racing NSW, Paul Newson, has claimed the industry’s financial structure is flawed to the point of non-viability. Of course, the previous board said the same thing, too. But neither has offered a meaningful solution, except for appeals to the government to correct some past errors and reduce taxation.
That would be nice but they are once-off changes and still ignore the basic issues — greyhound racing income is too small and not growing in real terms, and no-one is doing much about it.
The troops are starting to become aware of this. Perusing a blog recently, I noticed some words of wisdom from a trainer/breeder. Comments on these blogs are often self-serving and negative but this was an exception. Here’s a verbatim copy of what “Elsie” said:
“When was the LAST time GRNSW asked breeders to hire Martin place lunch time venue, to show off Greyhound pups, dogs & racing ?? That`s right, about 25 or more years ago. It is a sight with a big screen, perfect sound & safe areas can be set up for the pups. The same can be done in Brisbane, & Melbourne. No action to ever promote this industry to New people at Lunch time. Even the TABS could have a booth to take action on Lunch time meetings”.
To that I can add another example. Back in those days Uncle Ben’s used to run a specially built bus and conduct a roadshow around suburban shopping centres. Aimed at selling more dog food, the display featured half a dozen breeds, including some pups and usually a greyhound mum. The crowds loved it, especially those with kids. Unfortunately, Uncle Ben cut it out due to budget constraints and the like has not been seen since.
Similarly, in much the same period Queensland ran a Flying Amy Greyhound brand bus around the state to highlight the sport. Nothing much has happened since.
Anyway, that Martin Place venue is a winner. As a personal note I can tell you my daughter’s primary school band performed there once, attracting great interest and support. Many bigger gigs have worked as well.
The message is plain. Revenue is the big problem but to improve takings you have to go out and tell the public why you exist and how to take part. Sitting back and maintaining the status quo does not work. You either advance or you go backwards. Greyhound administrations have long failed to accept responsibility, preferring instead to just keep neat books and make impossible predictions in their five-year plans. In effect, they are sitting on the beach waiting for the ships to appear over the horizon.
I dare say with worthwhile changes and some effort the greyhound sector stands to increase income by 25% to 50%, thereby making a massive difference to its long term viability — to say nothing about returns to participants. Better marketing is an obvious course to follow, as is more professional public relations efforts. But the clincher would be nationalising the tote pools, thereby making greyhound meetings acceptable propositions for bigger punters. It would even increase tax income for state governments. Win-win-win.
PS: Years ago, I had considerable personal experience with cargo cults in New Guinea. They arose following WW2 after naive island villagers had noted how ship after ship used to arrive from far way to disgorge tons and tons of equipment, food and other supplies for the fighting troops. It ended up a debilitating experience for them. Now history is repeating itself.