Racing Has Been Stumped

Governance by national sporting bodies continues to grab the headlines as cricket tries to move into the modern world following the Carter Crawford report to Cricket Australia.

The selection panel has already changed while CA’s 14-person state-based board is mooted to be cut down to nine. Each state would still have one member but that person would have to be independent of the state administration – not an easy thing to bring about. In any case, this looks like a Clayton’s solution. How can you claim true independence when state residency is compulsory?

However, if CA accepts the recommendation it would then join the top bodies of the AFL and – shortly – Rugby League as reasonably independent organisations.

In contrast, state delegates dominate Rugby Union (22 voting members, including eight independent directors to go with all the state delegates), Tennis (8), Soccer (9), thoroughbred racing’s ARB (17) and harness racing (12).

Greyhounds Australasia has 9 state- and NZ-based members, who are always the chairmen or CEOs of state authorities.

So which system is better?

The Australian Institute of Sport has published findings that independent organisations are much more successful than those where national members have also to answer to their state bodies. AIS specifically recommends against state appointees due to that conflict of interest.

AFL and ARL dominate the three critical fields of media, attendances and TV contracts, which underlines their historical success. In the other two football codes there have at least been discussions about a change to their governance systems but not a great deal of action. Soccer has a big following with mums and kids but the premium level competition is fragile and frequently propped up by wealthy benefactors. The Union base depends critically on players generated by elite schools and support from high income suburbs and shows no sign of increasing its influence.

But sport is just as much a business as a recreational activity these days. The dollars make all the difference and so does the way the sport is run. Its customers (ie fans and spectators) want comfort and high class performances. To sustain that support, a sport must reach far and wide into the community – something that soccer took a long while to recognise before it got rid of overtly ethnically based teams.

Racing has generally failed on these counts, mainly because it has relied solely on an automatic cultural attachment to “having a bet”, regardless of the quality of the product. It effectively rubbished punters who indicated clearly they were not happy with the status quo and deserted in droves to NT bookies and Betfair. SKY channel attractions cut sharply into the remainder, in turn leaving those fans more open to competing gambling opportunities. Hence the flat betting turnover of the last two decades, interrupted only by the odd big event. Even then the last Victorian Spring Carnival series at the gallops produced ordinary results, as did the coincident greyhound Topgun-Melbourne Cup program.

Clues to these shortcomings are that racing organisations are still tradition-bound while their national bodies have no commercial brief – they are limited to regulatory matters only. Instead, dealing with the dollars is left to the state or, more often, the club itself. So, too, with negotiations with TABs, media and governments.

Contrast that with AFL and ARL (probably) TV contracts of $1 billion-plus, all handled by the national authority.

But the small shadow cast by racing’s national authorities also means they will never impress the public or perhaps even the industry itself. Regulatory matters are important but boring to the public – at least until corruptions appear, as occurred a few years ago in NSW greyhounds and in the harness code today.

While greyhounds have done better than the other two codes in money matters that has been more a matter of good luck than good management. The extra cash comes from extra meetings, not from any growth in like-for-like meetings, and it is more often coming from mug gamblers than from people who understand racing.

Would an independent, commercially-oriented national authority have done any better? Almost certainly.

For example, given that greyhound racing is the largest single contributor to the TABs’ ability to offer wall-to-wall racing (it has many more meetings than either of the other codes), why do greyhound clubs have to pay through the nose to obtain SKY coverage? Surely it should be the other way round.

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