Many years ago I came across a group of villagers sitting on the beach on an island off the coast of New Guinea. They were not talking much but all were looking eagerly out to sea. Inquiries revealed they were waiting for the arrival a large ship carrying stores to keep the village in food, drinks and whatever.
No, they had not ordered anything; they just “knew” that the ship would turn up. It had started with a couple of guys wishing hard that it would happen. In time, more and more villagers cottoned on to the scheme and they all wished harder and harder.
It’s called a cargo cult and probably had its origins in WW11 when dozens and dozens of ships disgorged supplies to maintain American and Australian troops, and then disappeared to go and get more. The cults emerged several times in New Guinea and also in the Solomon Islands where the war was equally fierce.
Unfortunately for them, with plentiful supplies in the offing, the villagers saw no need to tend their gardens. Consequently, during that season they ended up with no crops and reduced to near-starvation rations. A few coconuts and some fish did not do the job.
Such is the power of the mind over common sense.
You might say it’s a stretch from a beach in New Guinea to racing in modern day Australia, which it is. But, if you look closely, there are some worrying similarities.
Over the last 40 years, particularly the last 20 years, raceclubs have become almost completely dependent on income from TAB commissions. Every month or quarter, the morning mail includes a cheque for many thousands of dollars. Whether the club has done a good job or not, the money still arrives. It originates from people the raceclub does not know and never will – they are sitting in clubs and pubs around the nation.
Takings from entry fees or pie sales are peanuts by comparison. On course betting is modest except for an occasional big event. Even then most of it will be generated by owner-trainers and their offsiders, which means it is not fresh money but the same old stuff going round and round.
Pre-TAB (the 1960s) or more critically, Pre-SKY (say pre-1989), life was much different. Raceclubs went to some lengths to welcome locals coming along for a bet and a fun night out. Hundreds or even thousands of locals supported racing, spurred along by a couple of dozen bookmakers keen to get their business. The raceclub’s lifeline depended on the number of fans and how much they spent.
A little of that remains today although it is spasmodic and relies on the energy of the local secretary and committee. Groups are always a winner, if you can get hold of them. Increasingly, though, they are not enough to justify bookmakers attending because, almost by definition, such groups are neither punters nor greyhound fans at heart. They may come back, they may not.
But, on an annual basis, it all still pales by comparison with rewards flowing from the TABs and other remote betting operators. In other words, racing’s cargo cult is alive and well. Do nothing and the ship will still arrive.
I have already mentioned the three sources of today’s cash: mug gamblers in pubs and clubs, betting by insiders – although more of that is probably going to operators where the bet does not chop the odds back, and genuine punters, also often hamstrung by pools that are too small to bother with. This has various consequences, including over-betting on favourites and distortion of dividends by computer-generated Mystery bet combinations.
Certainly, bigger pools – eg a national pool scheme – would not only overcome many of these problems but also create fresh opportunities to attract big punters. But how do you get there?
The simple answer is for each and every state to wave its magic wand and make it happen. However, waiting for Racing Ministers to act would be brave but foolhardy. Indeed, even the chairman of Greyhounds Australasia forgot to mention the subject when he addressed a meeting of state Ministers back in April – another indication of how poorly GA represents the industry.
The more productive solution is to go out and attract more good punters. That has the added advantage of involving marketing campaigns that would present the sport more effectively to the public at large.
Currently, promotional efforts by state authorities do not cut the mustard. The evidence is in the cash register. Bits and pieces will never work effectively in a marketplace that has a myriad of destinations to choose from in getting rid of its spare cash, and usually at a discount.
I have been in this business for many decades and never once have I received a personal appeal telling me why I should invest. Yes, I see many ads from TABs and bookies but they simply tell me what I should do, not why. They assume I am already involved and do no more that try to pinch my business from whoever has it at the moment. Nobody offers to explain to me what greyhound racing is all about – how racetracks work, what different dogs do, how they are bred, how to get value, and so on. What is “value” anyway?
There is a reason that three quarters of all punters patronise the gallops – it’s part of the culture of the bloke in the street. That does not work for greyhounds. We need to make it so and 2013 would be a good time to start.
The alternative is to be left on the beach waiting for the ship that will never come and picking up the scraps of coconuts falling on the ground.
We have a fair idea of how to start the ball rolling. The Miata-Black Caviar promotion for the Sandown Cup was a roaring success because the industry took it to the people of Melbourne and explained what it was all about. They understood and so gave their support.