Renew, Refresh, Change … Anything

Xerox, struggling to survive the expiry of its patents on photocopying … developed the fax machine, the graphical interface which defines all modern computers, the laser printer, the Ethernet, and the first personal computer, the Alto. Yet Xerox did not become a powerhouse in personal computing”. IBM did “but eventually bowed out of the personal computer business in 2005”. “Microsoft … was caught unawares by the internet, lost the search-engine war with Google, and may soon lose its dominant position in software altogether.

(From ADAPT, “Why Success Always Starts With Failure”, a book written by English economist, Tim Harford, Little Brown Book Group, 2011. Well worth buying).

Just recently, one racing minister replied to my query letter with a substantial explanation of why things were so good in racing today. By “substantial” I mean he wrote a lot of words, or his offsider did. Yet those words simply amounted to cut and paste from official media releases, which themselves were mostly political spin. In other words, there was nothing new, nothing changed.

More importantly, he ignored everything I put to him in my own letter, including both facts and opinions. They had dealt with things such as the decline in average field quality, the huge changes in the customer profile and the need to refresh and re-invigorate an industry which has been steadily losing its dominance over the last two decades.

As an example, it’s worth noting that the same minister made a big play about recent enhancements to subsidy programs, claiming that they would bring more activity and greater employment to the state. Let the record show that if either occurs I will never have another bet for the rest of my life. A breeding subsidy is the single worst economic measure ever taken by any state . They are neither necessary nor productive.

Anyway, my original letter, which went to all ministers, had been prompted by an address by the chairman of Greyhounds Australasia to a Racing Ministers Conference earlier this year. That speech also claimed things were terrific, but it was superficial and misleading. However, in passing, let’s note that GA looks after only a few technical subjects – racing rules and breeding records being prime examples. It deliberately does not touch “commercial” subjects, which remain the province of the individual states.

In these sorts of cases the responses are designed to do no more than palm off the inquirer. They are one of several bureaucratic techniques which follow “Sir Humphrey Appleby” guidelines to get rid of nuisances.

A related practice is to deny or ignore the fact that any problems exist, which is much more worrying. It means that errors will be repeated. A current example is that is building a new track at Ballarat which includes a bend start for 545m events, despite GRV having previously claimed that such box placements were contrary to its policy. Multiply that by a hundred or so and you have a picture of Australian greyhound tracks with shortcomings that would never be permitted in galloping or harness codes, or any sport for that matter. Jockeys, drivers and trainers would be up in arms in a flash, and have done so more than once.

The result of all these processes is that racing ends up with more of the same. Preserve the status quo. It’s always been done this way. She’ll be right. And so on.

How, then, can the business of greyhound racing prosper if it does not move with the times? Should it, as seems likely, be achieving greater returns (and bigger ) from its investment into track assets, the purity of the breed, the skills of its participants? In sharp but nearby contrast is the huge progress made in technical support areas over the last couple of decades: drug handling, feeds, veterinary services, medicines, training techniques, transport and the like are all vastly more sophisticated than they once were.

In other words, the raw material is there but the product is not being delivered efficiently. The technological advances have not led to better crops. For the most part, those few extra dollars in the kitty at the moment are a function of bad dogs in bad races, underwritten by bad gamblers.

In short, innovation is lacking. Essentially, the product offered today is identical to the one offered in, say, 1980 or 1990. The management system is the same one used in 1950.

The only major change has been in the customer mix, and that was involuntary. Two things happened there. SKY has many benefits but it pulled fans away from the racetracks where they might have learnt more about how dogs race. Then a variety of factors caused a decline in keen punters, and their replacement by passing poker machine refugees and barflies. These are the people who will provide the minister’s “bright future”.

Racing is by no means dead. The sporting and gambling urges will see to that. But it is inefficient, primarily because it is outdated and irrelevant to many recreation seekers. In parallel, it is also building a customer profile that is far more likely to contain “problem” gamblers, with all the hassles that embraces.

AFL and ARL did not gain billion dollar TV contracts by repeating 1990 efforts. Both have made significant changes to the operation and presentation of their games since then. They have adjusted and innovated. Yet racing continues on the same old theme, perhaps with an extra coat of paint here and there, hoping the floodgates will open. It will not happen. It has not been happening for two decades now. What racing is getting is not much more than a trickle of sludge through the bottom of the gates.

Just consider a few basic points for the sake of the discussion.

  • Are our rug colours ideal or are they too often confusing. Were they picked around a committee table or by a skilled set of technologists?
  • Why not have bigger plugs between each box? That would reduce early interference, although at some extra cost.
  • What is the best colour (if any) for lures? They vary from state to state and dogs are partially colour blind anyway. And what is the ideal lure type?
  • Why don’t all clubs, not just a tiny handful, show pictures of close finishes on SKY – the fans love them?
  • Why are so many race cameras not aligned with the finishing post? Or too low?
  • Why don’t newspapers give greyhounds a decent coverage? If the answer is not enough public interest, why not do something about that?
  • How should we educate future greyhound fans, including potential future owners, trainers and punters?
  • Why do university veterinary students prefer to deal with other types of small animals? And why is there so little veterinary research (other than directly sponsored work) done on greyhounds?
  • Are our breeding patterns leading anywhere and are they good, bad or indifferent?
  • Why are ultra-short races now making up a bigger proportion of all races?
  • Why does the industry refuse to conduct serious investigations into the science of track design, as other codes have done?

Readers may have their own questions to add to this list (please write in), which is far from exhaustive. But the key point is that the industry is run like no other in the country. It reacts only to internal pressures, not to the needs and wants of the man and woman in the street. It is seldom held accountable and therefore the incentive to change or modernise is minimal. This is why it has been paying a cost in declining market share for two decades and why it is chasing a few short term dollars at the expense of excellence, and therefore putting its future prosperity at risk. It is doing what the cricket establishment did before Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket came along. Can there be a better guide?

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