Earning Your Keep

Marx and Lenin would no doubt look approvingly on the way football and racing authorities dole out cash. These two groups actually start out very similarly. Both allocate “wages” equally – at least amongst equal level clubs – only reserving some funds for those which get into strife and need special handouts.

One outcome of this policy is that a raceclub risks developing a cargo cult mentality, knowing that the will arrive regularly – almost regardless of what it does. The vast majority of its income is derived from people it does not know and never sees – a far cry from the old days when a circle of bookmakers welcomed a large throng of locals and ten or fifteen thousand regularly attended city meetings.

Today, a raceclub that organises its business really well might do better than average, but only marginally.

Football clubs are not so communistic. They are prone to spend more on premium level staff and players than on average ones. Their fans regard themselves as special, quite distinct from the rest of the population. Club expenses for , coaching, gym facilities and medical attention are big but vary widely from one to the other, a factor which bears heavily on where they finish at the end of the season. Fortunately, these clubs have the backing of tens of thousands of supporters who not only pay to watch matches but also make use of associated social clubs. In turn, that generates lots of surplus cash.

Add to that the passionate desire to win matches, or even premierships, and you have the core reason for football doing better than racing. Hence the massive fees paid by TV channels for broadcast rights and the huge coverage achieved in the news sections of the press. Consequently, it has been natural to see the rise and rise of betting from a small base. From chook raffles to professional punters.

Yet the paradox is that, in terms of investors and betting volumes, racing actually has many more adherents than football, at least for the moment.

While a bigger proportion of the population attend AFL and ARL matches (25%) than horse and dog racing (12%), their betting preferences are reversed.

17% of Australians bet on horse and dog races compared with only 5% who bet on all forms of sports. These are ABS figures for 2009/10 but note that other surveys may show higher numbers, depending on their methodology.

The ARB Fact Book reports that in 2009/10 Thoroughbred racing was on top with 65.7% of total , Sports next with 12.8%, Greyhounds at 12.0% and Harness 9.5%.

All of which suggest that “Sports” are doing a better job of converting bums on seats into turnover and profits. They are also growing at a faster rate, especially amongst younger age groups. For example, while the two main football codes held their own between 2005/06 and 2009/10, racing attendances actually fell by two percentage points.

Arguably, what drives these preferences are (a) a strong personal attachment to football, coupled with a good knowledge of its rules and practices, and (b) a decline in knowledge of the fine points of racing and betting, prompted by fewer track attendances and the absence of remedial action by racing administrators. You might also suspect a third factor: major sports are, or soon will be, run by independent commissions with strong business orientations and better negotiating muscle.

People have a strong “feel” for football but much less for racing, except perhaps for a few special events. Football is first hand, racing is in the distance. Football is very much a sport while racing is just part of the gambling sector. Football takes up an afternoon, a race only a minute, more or less. Rivalry matches, finals and contests kill the TV ratings while only the compares in racing. TAB patrons are increasingly in the mug gambler category – ie passers by – as evidenced by the increasing popularity of Mystery bets and exotic bets generally, while Win betting is in long term decline.

For greyhound racing, which has more meetings than the other codes, its decision making has accelerated this trend. Resources are largely dedicated to servicing trainers at the expense of customers (WA might claim an exception to this rule). It has purposely reduced the standard of the average race by catering to more low quality dogs. Quantity outranks quality – the opposite of football. But it has over-reached – it is now running more short fields and more TAB maidens. It has grabbed short term gains via extra races while making it harder to patronise high standard races (Saturday night takings at major meetings have fallen over the last year). An overcrowded calendar poses more hassles than a peak hour commuter train.

By and large, greyhound racing is inward-looking rather than sensitive to the needs of customers. Corporate spin dominates over interesting and useful information. Tipsters abound (with their silly one-liners) while form discussions are rare. National coverage is sparse, reflecting public attitudes. Attending to administrative tasks has outweighed the need for broadly-based business management. Committees dominate, outcomes are therefore mediocre. Dogs compete, the industry just hopes. Tradition rules supreme.

All of which leaves greyhound racing as an easy target if something goes wrong. It has no worthwhile public support base to fall back on.

Yet greyhound racing has wonderful assets – it’s widespread, it’s close-up and personal, it’s relatively cheap to take part, it’s easily filmed, it has a large pool of skilled trainers and dedicated owners, it has state-of-the-art technical backup, drug control is strong, and it has a 6,000 year history of purity. The pity is that most of the public does not know all that.

The fix? Major . Do what other primary industries have done – wool, wheat, meat and livestock, for example. Commercialise or bust. Promote or perish. Nationalise or get relegated. Racing Ministers please note.

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