A diary on Tabcorp over the last three or four years would make interesting reading. It might show its poor turnover growth record is due to other factors than a few bookies in the Northern Territory. (If you are comparing notes, please consider (a) inflation and (b) new meetings added).
First, back office stuff which was once done in Sydney was shifted to Melbourne. Ticket layouts and some screen presentations changed – both for the worse. For example, instructions on the Quinella ticket are actually wrong, while Quinella screens were initially revamped to show prices in hard-to-find ascending order, and later returned to rug number order when programmers realised their mistake. Then they made them hard to study because they rotated screen occupancy with Doubles odds for races which you can no longer bet on.
Concurrently, Tabcorp introduced to NSW the hopelessly unpopular Victorian Duet bets. These must be the greatest farce in racing history. An unknown number of successful gamblers split up a pool of $100 or so for each successful combination. They serve only to take up space and reduce turnover on already too-small Quinella and Exacta pools. Those responsible for persisting with Duets should be sacked or sentenced to six months on a ticket counter.
Somewhat later, TAB feature walls (with next-up race details, etc) started giving preference to harness or gallops and relegated greyhound races regardless of jump times – thereby putting them out of sync with SKY screens. That’s pure nastiness. It confuses customers and reduces turnover.
Then Tabcorp moved into the bookmaking business by buying up an NT company and forming Luxbet, and followed by creating fixed odds options for the more popular meetings. The obvious intention of fixed odds was to better compete with NT bookies but they also had the effect of robbing the normal pools on which most greyhound fans rely.
SKY2 and SKY3 arrived in mid-2010, offering coverage for low class racing in all codes and any old country, thereby spreading the available cash more thinly. Total betting climbed a little but, for example, peak Saturday night pools at Wentworth Park and The Meadows dropped immediately. More bad luck for greyhound fans, who would be getting sore necks finding the right screen to watch (or, at home, maybe missing that channel altogether).
Incidentally, note the habit of some SKY broadcasters trumpeting some extraordinarily high First Four dividends (apparently under instructions from the boss), despite the fact that nobody got them – ie they jackpotted. In any event Tabcorp tells lies here in the way they publish such dividends. Just double the number you first thought of.
During all this time, Tabcorp never answered its correspondence, or not mine anyway. Detailed comments about all the above were ignored. Not even an indication that they got the letters.
Tabcorp was then run by Elmer Funke Kupper, a bloke with a straight finance background. Recently, realising they were not doing too well, he organised a split of the company into a casino group on the one hand and a wagering group on the other.
Soon after, Elmer left the company and the recently-hired David Attenborough moved into the top spot, bringing with him a background in racing and wagering. He had worked for Ladbrokes in the UK and South Africa – in the latter case the bookmaking company also owned and controlled the actual racing. As the Sydney Morning Herald reports, Attenborough tells how “we were dealing with the trainers, dealing with race courses, collecting rent for trainers boxes, sitting on the jockey club”. That sounds promising, but time will tell. South Africa, incidentally, has no commercial greyhound racing, while no racing code is doing too well in the UK at the moment.
It’s not hard to draw some conclusions from all this fooling around.
First, Tabcorp has long since stopped being sympatico with racing as such. Fast cash and short vision rules. Quality is irrelevant, only quantity counts.
Second, Tabcorp has never adopted what I call the “Bob Ansett” rule. In his Budget heyday Bob insisted that all his managers spend a day every month on the front counter dealing with customers. By doing that they found out what customers needed and wanted.
Third, an ivory-tower-decision making process – “we know what’s best for you” – is the root cause of much of the above actions and policies. Tabcorp’s actions indicate managers do not rub shoulders with the hoi polloi in TAB shops. Maybe that’s also one reason a large swathe of once-solid customers has disappeared into the ether, to be replaced in part by mug gamblers and their Mystery bets (which now murder the odds for exotic bets).
Fourth, on several counts Tabcorp has done disservice to patrons of greyhound racing (and all small-pool meetings). This is curious as there are far more greyhound meetings than in any of the other two codes. They are important in maintaining betting continuity.
To be fair, at least Elmer tried to combine NSW and Victorian pools – which would have been of immense help to the greyhound code – but got knocked back by a poorly-advised NSW Racing Minister. Tabcorp has not made any public comment since, while Tatts is making some noises but actual progress is hard to find.
As against that effort, Kupper issued a media release calling on the NSW government to ban Betfair. How naive can you get? It was quite clear at the time that discussions between Betfair part-owner, James Packer, and then-Premier Iemma were well advanced – a deal had been done. Maybe Kupper forgot to ask his Sydney people?
This is the environment in which Attenborough has to work. Hopefully, a man who understands racing should do better than his predecessors.
Importantly, as more challenges arrive to Tabcorp’s monopoly the key to progress will be its corporate culture and attention to customers’ needs. Tabcorp and Tatts are effectively unsupervised except in a few small legal areas and so can get away with almost anything. There is no appeal, no ombudsman. Ministers simply refer correspondence back to the tote company. Racing authorities have little or no influence since they sold off what power they had for a few millions when capital hungry governments progressively privatised their totes. Besides, they tend to ignore correspondence, too.
And corporate culture is a hard thing to change. It can take years, even when you are trying. That will be Attenborough’s big test. Like his namesake, he will have to look under a lot of rocks to find what he wants, and what the industry needs.
Postscript: Attenborough aside, neither Tabcorp’s board or its Executive committee have any members with real racing experience, other than that gained in the last few years with Tabcorp itself.