The GRNSW profit of $6.9m for the 2019/20 year was surprising enough, so why not see how the other states have been doing? It’s a mixed bag.
This is no simple task as they all report differently in both race data and financials, and some look after three racing codes, not just greyhounds. On top of that, Greyhounds Australasia makes life harder because it has long since quit its job of collating national statistics – last seen in 2015.
Easily the best performer, and surpassing NSW, was Queensland with a $7.65m surplus at the end of the year. Greyhounds comfortably outpaced the other two codes and bumped revenue up by 18.7%. That was pushed along by the straight track at Capalaba achieving full TAB status – and it’s shortly to add another fortnightly meeting, something it could teach NSW.
All the other states recorded small profits or losses – the worst in Tasmania where racing was shut down for three months due to Covid. All Tasmanian racing is owned and controlled by the government. Others are supposedly independent but WA greyhounds are run by GWA, an appointed group, although the tri-code government unit (RWWA) holds all the purse strings.
Revenues were generally up a little but the heavy hand of Covid and TAB closures made turning that into profits more difficult – in Tasmania’s case, impossible.
Paradoxically, running more races was the order of the day, with both Queensland and WA increasing by over 4% on 2018/19. This came despite a continuing low breeding performance nationally. The mighty studs of NSW and Victoria still can’t shake off the doldrums caused by 2015 live baiting sagas so pup numbers are not much better than half the levels of the old days.
There is a flow-on cost, of course. All states except for the small Tasmanian operation are working with smaller race fields than the year before. Average starters per race are down to the 7.3 or 7.4 mark compared with, say, 7.6 or more in earlier times.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in Victoria where dog shortages and a near 1% rise in meetings thinned out per race averages to 7.3 dogs. Compared to 2016/17, the state had 5.9% fewer starters overall. Amazingly, Victoria has continued to expand race opportunities by adding cheap Saturday morning meetings and recently instituting a 13-race option for meetings where “demand is high”. Just as amazingly, it has screwed more cash out of gamblers – leading to a 2.9% rise in revenue – although expenses cut sharply into that figure.
Of course, often this comes back to bite the state when neighbouring meetings run short of nominations. For example, just last weekend, Sale’s Cup heat meeting did well but Sandown’s regular Sunday date at the same time pulled in only enough for 10 races and only one of those had a full field – some were down to four or five starters. In total, a potential 39 boxes went unfilled.
The performance is always erratic – on the Monday following that weekend, four low grade provincial meetings were loaded up with starters (most over shorter trips, of course). Yet while Warrnambool launched the 13-race system with good fields, its nearest neighbour Horsham then got stuck with 28 empty boxes on Tuesday.
Despite the small field disincentives for exotic betting, Victoria still managed to boost betting turnover and revenue. How did they do that? I have no idea. We would have to ask the gamblers. Whatever they did, it was not on the Tote where pools got smaller and smaller. So we have to assume that all those folk sitting around at home used their digital devices to hook on to the one of the numerous corporate bookies and took whatever was on offer. Those guys now process well over half the wagering action.
But more big changes are under way. One is in SA where G-Six racing makes up a big slice of the action – six to a field plus none, one or two reserves. It was accompanied by increases in race numbers so that the overall SA result was positive in turnover terms. While that was a regulated change, the Victorians often managed to do the same thing without trying (ie due to dog shortages).
The other elephant in the room is the euthanasia-cum-safety environment. Policies are no longer directed towards making up the best fields possible but at making sure that every able-bodied dog can get a run somewhere, and hopefully do so without hurting themselves. New race classes were invented (Tier 3, Class C and the like), slower dogs were extracted out of the depths of litters (themselves fewer) and thrust into conventional race programs. Naturally, average race quality had to fall and average distances shorten.
Similarly, as shown in the Traralgon design, racing circuits are being built to satisfy the safety God and don’t necessarily offer the best all round opportunities for a range of greyhound abilities. Both are important so it is just a question of priorities. Like a kindergarten play area, kids need to have fun but only when there is a soft landing to fall on.
Effectively, this is now a new industry and it poses questions about what might happen in an uncertain 2021.
First, what will the traditional industry do – meaning racing authorities and participants? And, second, what will customers and the public do?
The answer to the first is not hard; experience shows that nothing much will happen unless governments and state authorities are urged to do it; bureaucracies are just not geared to take action or generate serious reform. More often they avoid it. Ministers don’t do much if there are votes at stake. Participants are not organised to act unless something really drastic occurs – like shutting down the industry.
On the other hand, customers have surprised us by charging ahead with their wagering, regardless of bombs falling all around them. Still, they may get sick of this unless someone or something stirs them up. Covid will not help and it’s likely to hang around for a year or two. Using Harvey Norman’s advertising agency would be a good move – preferably daily but at least weekly.
Much the same applies to the general public. We could get on well with them providing we start explaining to them what the greyhound is all about – a magnificent, ancient and unique athlete. Having done a good job there, it will then – and only then – be profitable to launch more ads about re-homing and great racing. Right now we are casting seeds on a barren field and they won’t germinate.
And none of the above will work as well if it is not done on a national basis. Today’s occasional PR efforts are all very well but they are not co-ordinated, nor are they all headed in the same direction. Such are state jealousies.
Putting it Together
Which leaves us with the product. The race.
We are facing two long term challenges which will hold us back. Most of the waffle about safer tracks is just that – waffle. Actual improvements have been small, isolated and sometimes contradictory. We are still a long way from achieving consistent excellence. Designing a modern supermarket is not like slapping a coat of paint on Uncle Joe’s corner store but that is what we are trying to do and it’s not working. Look harder. Analyse more. Check outcomes and don’t believe media releases or annual reports.
Then there are the dogs themselves. There are not enough of them and they can’t run as far – or too few people are training them to go further. The current obsession with sub-400m races coming off a bend will kill off the industry as we know it and, coincidentally, contribute to injuries and turn off real punters. They are degrading the integrity of the racing event. The other two racing codes and human sports would not stand it for a minute yet greyhound racing is happy to plod along with blinkers on.
So that’s what we need to see in 2021: better promotion, better tracks and a better race profile will lead to a happier New Year. Let’s look for more 500m and 700m champs. And find better ways of looking after slow dogs. The core elements are there so it’s just a matter of managing everything more productively in sometimes trying circumstances.