Truth In Advertising?

The SKY announcer was amazed. “The First Four has paid over $10,000”, he trumpeted, talking about the second race at Albion Park last Thursday.

Actually, no. It didn’t pay that at all. It paid nothing because nobody got it. It jackpotted.

But, yes, the Tabcorp screens did show a dividend of $10,688 even although the pool was only $6,290. If anyone had got it, the dividend (for $1) would have been $4,875. Why so?

Well, on this one it is impossible to work out how they got to their figure. Normally, when no-one picks the right combination, Tabcorp’s trick is to assume there was a 50 cents investment, deduct the usual 22.5% and show double the “correct” figure. Of course, these days there are many sizes of bets placed under the “Flexi-bet” system (a good system it is, too), so they might be dividing by any old figure to get the final imaginary dividend.

Other bet types will normally show a dividend for a $1 investment. But in the above cases Tabcorp makes up its own mind what it will show, always inflating the end figure to fool the customers, hoping they will come back for more. It’s a PR move, nothing more.

It’s a fairly common practice. Indeed, it happened in the previous race at Albion Park: pool $3,182, displayed dividend $4,932, should have been $2,466. And also at Sandown the same night in race 7 when the screen showed $5620 rather than a correct $4,355.

It may be argued that it doesn’t matter as nobody got paid. But some folk like to keep track of what’s going on and, in any case, why tell lies?

Tabcorp is crafty about publishing betting figures at the best of times. For example, its annual report shows nothing more than an Australia-wide wagering volume of $4 billion-odd. No breakdown at all; not by code, not by track, not by bet type. That’s hardly informative for its shareholders, particularly when it has been complaining about other operators pinching its business.

Then a few years back it used to publish monthly turnover figures by track. No more, that’s stopped, too. And now Tabcorp’s new combined Fixed Odds/Tote screens provide no pool data for exotic bets. Quinella/Exacta punters are left in the dark half the time because they share a screen with Doubles odds which are for information only – you can’t bet on them any more.

If you do want some more detail, just go to the Australian Racing Board’s annual Fact Book. Funnily enough, the ARB could get that information only from the tote companies.

However, the subject is becoming more intense now with the arrival of Fixed Odds betting. For Tabcorp and Unitab this was a backdoor approach to bookmaking, introduced purely to combat the growth of NT bookies. It seems to be very popular with bigger punters (do greyhounds have any of those left?). That is, popular for as long as the bookies keep them on – some punters are complaining about being knocked back if they win too much. If they do get on, it gives them certainty without suffering a big reduction in odds on the normal tote.

Those same big punters are apparently keen on the bookies’ “Best of the TABs” offers because that give them a slight edge over other options. Mind you, the more they patronise NT bookies (or gamble on Trackside), the less goes into TAB pools and the more unstable the TAB prices become. Catch 22! How much of a diversion this causes is another big secret.

What we are seeing, despite the arrival of extra competition, is the ever-increasing domination of racing and most of the wagering scene by Tabcorp and Unitab, always in their interests, and often not in the interests of their customers or the racing industry at large. Both have monopolies in shopfront betting.

The problem is that, unlike other monopoly businesses – eg airports, taxi companies or NBN broadband – totalisator companies have no real supervision from an independent regulator. They do have a few legal limits but, by and large, they can run their shop any way they like.

For example, I have several times complained in writing to Tabcorp about the above and other hassles (an incorrectly worded and badly designed Quinella ticket is another example). To date, Tabcorp has never even acknowledged the letters, let alone responded to the problems. “We’ll tell you what’s good for you” is the underlying message.

Today, TABs are more concerned with beating the opposition than looking after customers. Cash at any price is the theme. This takes you back to the bad old days when Australia had a two-airline duopoly, the top banks had no competition and customers paid through the nose.

Governments could take some steps to improve corporate behaviour and create a more customer-friendly marketplace. Top of the list would be off-course licensing of bookmakers, a national TAB betting pool and a wagering ombudsman. Indeed, it’s a fair bet that such improvements would also increase turnover and therefore the governments’ own tax income.

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