Professionals Are All Very Well, But There’s More

There used to be one, now there are many – and still growing. Bet types, that is. They might not all influence the professionals we discussed last Monday but they are pointing the way to a messy future.

Today, there are twelve ways you can have a wager, more if you count the once popular Concession (money back if you run 2nd) or the occasional but near impossible Big6. The only one that’s disappeared is the Superfecta (first six finishers in order). The awful Duet is still here but should have gone long ago (hardly anyone uses it).

Win betting attracts nearly half the cash, but is declining in importance. High reward options like Trifecta, First Four and Quadrella are on the rise, proportionally. Quinella and Trifecta get a boost from Mystery bet enthusiasts, which might help turnover but also distorts the odds.

All this wagering is split up amongst two major TABs, a couple of small ones, a dozen NT bookmakers, hundreds of oncourse bookies and Betfair. One way or another, they operate on the majority of the country’s 551 racetracks.

Taking them on are three broad groups: professional punters, regular weekly punters and mug gamblers dropping in from the nearby pokies. Each lot has different methods and motives.

All this amounts to a massive, sometimes confusing, fragmentation of the market. If you like, it’s David Jones and Big W all rolled into one with several thousand outlets across the country. With the possible exception of beer, no other discretionary product has such wide availability.

This betting tsunami is still on the move. TABs have pushed into the bookmaker segment (via Fixed Odds and Luxbet) while bookies are offering best tote odds. Betfair, with perhaps 2% or so of the market, is pulling in customers from all areas, including bookmakers laying off. Simultaneously, sports betting is siphoning off custom that was once the preserve of racing alone. From almost nothing, it’s become just as important as greyhound racing.

Down the track, expect more change as the electronic world devises new ways of accessing races or betting options. Optus has already hinted at what might happen by pinching near-live AFL pictures for its mobile phones (still under appeal, though). Good luck to raceclubs trying to gather racefield fees from those sorts of possibilities.

That’s a lot of options. However, a thing to keep in the back of your mind is that psychological testing reveals that customers are happy enough to choose between two or three items, but they get their knickers in a knot if they are asked to make up their minds amongst six, eight or ten choices. The job becomes too hard and they lose interest.

Consider now what we are dealing with.

Last year Australians wagered a total of $23.5 billion of which $3.4 billion was on greyhound races. 80% of that went through TABs, 20% through bookmakers This excludes Betfair, which refuses to supply turnover figures but is possibly responsible for over 2% of all betting, although not necessarily 2% of greyhound’s.

Only 5% of TAB business and 2% of bookmaker business was done on course. (Does this suggest that owner/trainer cash does not actually influence the market? Not the tote market anyway).

Greyhound racing operates nearly 40,000 races a year, which is going on for half of all Australian races. However, the data does not show how many of those are TAB or non-TAB.

NSW and Victoria generate 53% of greyhound turnover but hand out 65% of all stakemoney. Some of the difference in those two figures would be due to more lucrative commission arrangements in Victoria (ex poker machine taxes and the like). However, NSW greyhounds is still hamstrung by being forced to cross-subsidise gallops and harness codes under a historic code split signed off in the 1990s. SA and Queensland had that problem, too, but have largely overcome it.

Even so, the two biggest greyhound states also have the biggest populations and the lion’s share of good dogs so their domination would be expected. Note also that all the top-rated dogs from the huge Wheeler breeding farm go directly to Victoria, lesser types to SA. The other states get virtually nothing initially.

Where is all this leading?

First, strategically, greyhound racing is more dependent on TAB income than the other two codes. But the code’s small pools and late betting pattern mean likely dividends are guesswork, which may deter some punters from investing at all. Technologically savvy professionals (if there are any left) will be better placed to handle that but not the everyday investor.

Second, according to Tabcorp’s last half-yearly report, basic tote business is flat and so profits were possible only because of growth in Fixed Odds and Trackside business, both of which are coming from a small base. It is unlikely either of those pluses could be attributed to the greyhound code to any great extent. Besides, Trackside has nothing to do with wagering – it is simply a differently coloured poker machine.

Third, total greyhound betting has roughly kept pace with inflation only because more races have been added on two or three different occasions in the last 20 years, the last in July 2010. Per race betting is actually down. Moreover, race to race pool sizes are unpredictable, more so now due to constant conflicts on SKY’s overcrowded programs.

Fourth, nowhere are there any indicators which promise an upside. Diversion of funds to Fixed Odds and Duet and declining average field quality only rub salt into the wound, while the increasing influence of mug gamblers further confuses the issue. So much for the effects of fragmentation. Some cleaning up could do no harm.

But which is the chicken and which the egg?

Serious though they are, these trends take no account of the failure of the industry to attract new blood. Promotional efforts, if any, are typically in-house, modest, self-serving, localised or preaching to the converted. However, this still begs the question of what the industry might offer to that new blood anyway. Is the product up to scratch? Or is it just another bank of mobile poker machines, as the TABs prefer?

On top of that, what has been lost in the last 50 years is the magic of racing – the sounds, the excitement, the call of the bookie, the punters charging for a price, the roar of the crowd as the favourite looms up in the home straight. Little of that is translated onto SKY screens, any more than the oranges and lemons do on a whirring poker machine. Even if it were, SKY would shut it off and switch to pictures of pacers milling around before the start of the next race. Consequently, today’s customer is not only geographically distant but emotionally removed also. Re-education is the only hope there.

It is probably no accident that the region best organised to market itself is WA, where poker machines are banned except in the casino. But even there, big attendances and the industry’s cut of the betting dollar are barely sufficient to keep the show on the road. RWWA’s last annual report states dismally “the economic environment in Australia … continues to impact upon consumer confidence and in turn discretionary spending generally in wagering”. (Not sure about that, as gambling has often been immune from national economic pressures).

The inevitable conclusion has to be that the industry must stop relying on betting commission alone to pay the wages, maintain the facilities and fund prize money. Even the mightiest can’t do that, as the former AJC in Sydney, now the Australian Turf Club, found out when it had to rely on government handouts to pay for its new grandstand.`

The message is that, if you are going it alone, you are on borrowed time. It won’t happen overnight but it will white ant the industry. The necessary reform will work only when racing diversifies or identifies partners who generate profits and people traffic and then shoves a racetrack into the mix. It won’t be easy but it is necessary.

Federal Treasury Secretary Michael Parkinson (SMH 1 Feb) had some advice on this: “Just as Australia is an economy in transition, the businesses and people who succeed are those that embrace and adapt to changing circumstances”.

Better still, try prominent whip critic Patrick Smith (Australian Feb28), “any sport that ignores the need for a national focus or actively works against the pooling of resources the length and breadth of Australia … ignore(s) the very people they purport to serve”.

Of course, an essential precursor for progress in greyhound racing is a national betting pool, much more so than in the other codes. Without that we will have little to sell with any confidence, regardless of other measures. The funny thing is that most folk, including some Racing Ministers, say the national pool would be a good thing yet it seems to have trouble getting off the ground. Maybe a march on Parliament House would help? Or, more accurately, on nine Parliament Houses.

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