I am quite struck by the level of interest in the in-coming Chairman of the Football Association. The first three pages of the Daily Telegraph‘s sport section are devoted to him and what his plans should be for the future of the sport; and the same topic, incredibly in my view, was the subject of this morning’s Five Live phone-in. I know footie is die-in-the-ditch sort of stuff, but even so.
The next leadership of British horseracing is unlikely to gain such prime media positioning, of course, which in itself tells you part of the story about the scale of the job that is there to be faced. While the challenges before racing greatly exercise the minds of a few, the rest of the country sees them as a little local difficulty in a far away land of which they know pretty much nothing. Part of the problem is that Racing continues to see itself as terribly important; while (whatever huge vote AP McCoy got on Sunday – and good luck to him for it) the public, and therefore the bookmakers who make money off what the public finds of interest , increasingly don’t.
This changing world provided for much of the content of William Haggas’s Gimcrack speech last week, even if all the headlines were, inevitably, made by his comment that racing had been ‘raped’ by the bookmakers for fifty years. Whatever the interest grabbed by one emotive word, though, I thought some other things he said were much more pertinent.
Not to write out vast sections of the speech, the lines that jumped out at me were, first, this one:
“Betfair’s two founders, Andrew Black and Ed Wray are racing people but now their company has been floated, there is no guarantee that the new Board will want to be helping Racing in any way, shape or form.”
And then these:
“It is quite possible that, in a few years time, betting shops will not exist in their current form as there is a likelihood of being able to watch a race anywhere in the country or probably the world on your mobile telephone and be able to have a bet on it at the same time. 2012 brings in digital television for the whole country which changes the landscape and will open up further opportunity for technology to bring everything to our fingertips. It is a frightening thought but an exciting one at the same time.“
The first of those comments is one that I have been making to Racing for the last number of years, urging them to take the hand that has been extended by Betfair over its first decade and recognising it as one of friendship rather than seeing it as a clenched fist. I have repeatedly tried to get them to see that when we started Betfair, we did so predominantly as a group of racing people; but that, today, those in key positions have less reason to feel warm and fuzzy about the sport – still less to take the time to understand the quirks of its politics.
I used to try to illustrate the point by letting them know, if they were not aware, that the Chief Executive was American (as indeed is the CTO); the chief commercial man, while English, has his sights set internationally; and the chap in charge of operations is German. As such, within the Executive, they had natural allies in the shape of the finance director Stephen Morana, Legal Director Martin Cruddace, and me. It was always a source of vague amusement to me that I should be seen by many in racing to be a thorn in the sport’s side, when in fact Betfair would wheel me out to talk to them largely because no-one else had any interest in banging their head against that particular wall.
I’m now history; and Andrew has since then stepped down from the Board. So, aside from Edward Wray who continues to be chairman, only Stephen and Martin remain as people you would describe as ‘friends of racing’ – very much, therefore, a minority. Given that they remain an influential one, there may still be a small window: while the ‘friends of racing’ within the company have diminished over recent years (while Racing has tilted at windmills), the horse might not (quite yet) have bolted. How nice it would be nice to see the in-coming Chief Executive of the BHA do what he can to salvage the position he has been left, before they go as well. My hope is that someone of Haggas’s reputation pointing this out may help some others see sense, and that 2011 finally brings an end to the absurd histrionics between Racing and Betfair which have characterised the relationship for so long.
A vain hope, you may say. And if you consider a conversation that springs to my mind as a result of Haggas’s second comment, relating to the changing world of technology, you may find support for your argument.
It took place last month, at the Peter O’Sullevan Charitable lunch, when I interrupted the ROA’s Paul Dixon in conversation with a former director of the BHA. They were talking about the sale of the Tote, and the ins and outs of what they said are not really relevant, except inasmuch as we moved on to discuss how betting might be conducted on racecourses in the future.
It was a topic that had been the subject of many conversations I had had with people around racecourses in Britain as, during the first half of this year, I pursued what I had dubbed my ‘Racing 2020 project’ – so called because it asked the two questions, “how do you see racing in a decade from now?” and, “what is your vision for the future of the sport?” (Can you see what I did there? I should clearly have been a headline writer for the Sun.)
Of the many ideas being mooted, one that I suggested racing might work on – perhaps even with a technology-driven betting organisation, if anyone can think of one – was the development of wifi clouds above racecourses which automatically logged people using PDAs into the course’s own portal, which then provided a means of betting. With the explosion in iPhone and Blackberry ownership in the last two years, and with the demographic of race-goers almost certainly having a significantly higher level of such ownership than the general public, it seems foolish to me for racing not to be developing solutions for this now, rather than turning to address it in a few years’ time, when someone else has beaten them to the punch (whereupon everyone can start whinging about the fact that they don’t own the product).
The answer I got was, “Not everyone owns an iPhone.”
I remember how Betfair was dismissed in similar terms between 2000 and 2002 – not quite with the words ‘not everyone uses the internet’, but frankly not far off. Looking back, it is hard to argue with the view that had Racing seen where Betfair was going when we were looking for investment, then not only would there be no funding issue, but a great deal of time and energy (not to say money spent on legal fees) would have been saved and used more effectively for other things.
To be fair, it was never a slam-dunk; and Racing at the time had plenty on its mind. But missing an opportunity is one thing; compounding that error by forever harking back to it is quite another. Nic Coward’s first task when he took the job should have been to get out of all the arguments that had bogged racing down for years, but unfortunately (for everyone) almost the first thing he said was about the need to get more money out of Betfair. As a result, racing has wasted four more years than it needed to.
His successor will, perhaps, have better luck with timing, in that the Levy Board consultation will just have been completed by the time that he (or she) arrives. If racing loses the ‘exchanges must pay more on the grounds that its customers look like bookmakers’ debate again, as I think it will, let’s hope the new CEO grabs the excuse finally to lay the argument to rest. That way, racing can get on with attempting to shape its future, instead of trying in vain to correct the mistakes of its past.