Beware The Betting Doldrums

Beware The Betting Doldrums

Building a statue of Bart Cummings was a nice touch. But be careful - the next one could be of the last remaining punter.

Where does our wagering future lie? The picture is cloudy but there are ongoing trends to point the way.

The elephant in the room – Tabcorp – is still dominant but losing ground courtesy of falling patronage at the gallops and the rise and rise of sports betting. Extra greyhound meetings have helped momentarily. Nothing new there. For the last 20 years the tote’s influence has been fading, often failing to overcome inflation. At the same time Win betting has declined as a share of the wagering market, to be replaced by some of the exotics, especially First Fours and various specialty numbers such as Big 6 (does anybody ever win those?).

More importantly, Tabcorp’s continuing promotion of Mystery betting, Trackside and the like is pulling in mug gamblers but is either distorting dividends for Quinella and Trifectas or reducing the basic pool sizes, or both, thereby adding to the difficulty of attracting serious punters. In any case, neither TABs nor racing authorities have mounted efforts to educate the next generation of punters. It shows. We are becoming a nation of tipsters and followers.

Tabcorp’s loss of traditional tote business is partly offset by an increase in Fixed Odds betting, although that comes from a small base. Profits last year fell by 67% according to CEO David Attenborough.

This should be no surprise to Tabcorp as it pointed out a few years ago that it thought the wagering market was “mature” and it would therefore concentrate more on casinos in future. Not much imagination there.

Not only that but it started up Luxbet, a Darwin-based bookmaker, not for the punters’ benefit but to better compete with the dozen or so fast-growing corporate types up there, all taking advantage of low taxes and cheap access to punters via phone and internet connections. So well have the newcomers been doing that most have now been taken over by UK betting conglomerates, leaving the original owners (all just bookies from southern capitals) to count their millions.

Estimates now put the corporate bookmaker market share at over 20% and growing. Betfair adds probably another 2% or 3% to that figure but it does not disclose its turnover figures, not even to that very useful publication, the ARB’s Fact Book.

The other half of Australia’s tote market is held by Tattsbet, which expanded from its original Queensland base to the Northern Territory, South Australia and Tasmania. Unfortunately for it, the NT market is tiny, Queensland racing is doing poorly in all three codes and Tasmanian racing is losing money since Tatts bought out the government-owned Tastote (nor was it very profitable before that when part of SuperTab). Only SA is holding its own, but mostly because of added meetings, and probably better promotion.

Tattsbet claims a 5.2% increase in wagering last year but that was helped by its recent addition of the Tasmanian business. As with Tabcorp, its Fixed Odds betting numbers are climbing but Tatts admits to a 2% drop in normal tote business at the same time. Online wagering accounts for 21.5% of the total.

Tatt’s prime problem is that its pools are barely half the size of Tabcorp’s, even by comparison with Tabcorp’s separate operations in each of NSW and Victoria. Betting is population-based but that distinction is starting to fade as electronic access increases. That three-way split renders all of them of dubious value for smaller meetings, including virtually all greyhound meetings. Any bet of reasonable size would destroy prices so genuine punters are being pushed towards other venues in Australia and overseas, to Fixed Odds, to SP bookies, to sports betting or to retirement. Traditional oncourse bookmakers are not able to stem the tide as there are many fewer of them, and sometimes none at all.

The so-called NT corporate bookmakers are seldom that at all, concentrating instead on offering tote odds rather than making up their own. They are basically maintaining the volume in the tote sector, while

allowing “Best Tote” bettors to gain small advantages. Recent checks of their Fixed Odds prices revealed a remarkable similarity with those of the TABs, although they are sometimes a bit better. Either way, all these “books” add up to 130% or more, which is more in line with country bookmaker standards.

Their much lower cost base has allowed them to devote considerable cash to promotions and sponsorship as well as to owners’ profits. Even then, punters who win too often risk having their account closed. Complaints are legion. Consequently, their original effect of boosting the wagering market is now dissipating, whether or not they continue to take business away from the traditional totes,

Aggregate figures for 2012/13 should be available in a couple of months so we will then know just how much all the back and forth has affected the industry.

Inevitably, overall wagering progress has been weak, and is likely to remain so. It is not just the total that counts but the myriad of bits and pieces which are made available to the public, each of declining worth. In other words, the quality of the betting product has worsened, with all indications that there will be more of the same in the future. There is competition but it is not working very well.

That trend will be strengthened by the progressive community shift towards hand-held devices and quick access to a betting operator. Almost by definition, that will mean welcoming customers who either have little access to a formguide or lack the means and the time to analyse one. Overbetting on favourites and resorting to mug bets like boxed Trifectas will tend to increase, both of which will help the operators but not the quality of the product.

So, what are racing industry chiefs doing about it? The short answer is the same as occurred when NT bookies and Betfair first arrived on the scene – nothing much. Or before that again, when Vanuatu- and Fiji-based bookies first came on to the scene, taking bets via consolidators based in Australia. Nothing happened then either. Racing authorities prefer tidy paperwork to serious strategic analysis and marketing initiatives. They are essentially bureaucratic organisations and that’s what bureaucrats do.

Certainly, a national betting pool would help a lot by giving solidity to the market, but mixed signals about this eventuality are coming from the main players.

The five or ten-year outlook therefore ends up with three main features: first, the betting product cannot possibly improve in the current environment, but it might get worse; second, the customer base will be further degraded and mug gamblers will become even more influential; and third, the industry’s income will decline in relative terms in sympathy with the commission shift away from high-paying totes to low-paying alternative betting operators.

Any potential “fixes” would be further constrained by the parochial nature and inertia of state governments, which effectively control all racing. Change is rarely something politicians welcome. It means more work and there will always be some voters who resent it. In any event, achieving harmony amongst all the states is notoriously difficult.

Underlying the whole structure is the high takeout percentage of the TABs – 14% to 25% - which leaves them vulnerable to more efficient competitors as well as making life difficult for punters trying to obtain profits. NT bookies and Betfair are just the beginning. There will be more, all intent on making a fast buck.

In the medium term, only one general move offers hope of the industry jumping to another level. That is the establishment of powerful and authoritative national bodies in all three codes and their devotion to bringing about measures which propel the industry into the 21st century. Too much of it is 50 years out of date. Racing is big business and needs big business attributes. Industry leaders might then talk with a big voice that really means something to politicians.

Any delay will see racing go the way of newspapers. Almost to a man, they failed to adjust quickly enough to the massive change in the way their customers dealt with them. Many are losing money (eg Fairfax) while some are being propped up by other corporate ventures (eg Murdoch). And look at all the money taxpayers are donating to local car manufacturers so they can build cars that no-one wants to buy. They are going broke, too.

There are ways forward for racing but they will not appear if we continue as we have been. The industry has to take control of the action and put the TABs back where they were supposed to be when state governments set them up – providing a service to the racing industry. Vice versa is not working.

(The betting on the Nationals tells more stories – more later in the week).

Bruce Teague

About Bruce Teague (All Articles)

Bruce Teague has had a lifelong interest in greyhound racing as a modest punter. Over the last 20 years he has helped develop and market the GreyBase range of computer form analysis programs, and written extensively for several industry publications. He has inspected over 30 greyhound tracks in recent years in the three eastern states and Tasmania. Bruce has a lengthy background in international and domestic airline management involving economic route studies and numerous visits to overseas aircraft manufacturers. He has conducted consultancies for private and government clients on policy and economic subjects.