Can greyhound racing win the battle to prove its worth?

Just when it looked like London’s last greyhound track was going to be replaced by AFC Wimbledon’s search for a new stadium, last month plans were ‘called in’ by the Mayor’s office. Scott Longley asks if this turn in fortunes can be reflected across the sport in general.

greyhoundbettingThe reprieve granted to Wimbledon greyhound stadium in mid-April was a rare piece of positive news for a sport which has been staring down the barrel for more years than its supported would care to count.

The two-year stay of execution was agreed between the developer Galliards and the current operators of the site GRA means that the Greyhound Derby and other high-profile races at Wimbledon are likely safe until at least 2017. With the original proposal going before the new London Mayor Sadiq Khan, there are hopes that the stay will be made permanent.

The chairman of the Greyhound Board of Great Britain (GBGB) Tom Kelly welcomed the news on Wimbledon but remained cautious with regard to the long-term picture. “The referral to the new mayor has given us the opportunity to urge him to keep greyhound racing in London,” he said.

“Not only is it of great importance to preserve greyhound racing in the capital, but it is vital for the future of the sport and those who are employed or entertained by it that the home of the Derby should not be sacrificed in favour of a much riskier alternative.”

In recent years, the sport of greyhounds has become habituated to making the most out of a bad hand. Unlike the more illustrious ‘sport of Kings’ horseracing, the dogs hasn’t historically enjoyed the status of a statutory levy and has to rely wholly on voluntary contributions from the betting industry. As the data shows, this amount has been falling steadily over the past from over £14.8m (on an inflation-adjusted basis) in 2006 to £7.34m in 2014/15.

On paper, this fall makes sense – or at least, it is in line with the fall in the betting turnover the sport engenders. The figures from the UK Gambling Commission show that betting shop turnover and gross gaming yield (GGY) for the greyhounds has been in decline for the past seven years. Amounts wagered has fallen from £1.58bn in 2008/9 to £1.19bn in 2014/15 while GGY has dipped from £304m to £216m over the same period.

greyhoundbettingturnover

Partly this is about competing products in the shops. Over the same period, we have witnessed the explosion in the popularity of gaming machines in betting shops with machine GGY rising from £1.07bn in 2008/9 to £1.67bn in 2014/15. This has had an impact on the greyhound numbers as there is plenty of evidence that the products appeal to the same high-frequency punter segment.

Yet, this doesn’t tell the whole story. As with racing, there has been a leaching of revenue online and offshore. The new data from the Commission covering the first five months of the new point of consumption regime shows that in the five months to March 2015 online greyhound turnover amounted £85.9m and GGY came in at £9.26m.

greyhoundUsing a crude extrapolation from those numbers, we can estimate that circa £206m of turnover and £22.2m of GGY has migrated away from the shops. However, the offshore bookmakers – and crucially Betfair – do not contribute to the voluntary agreement.

It is an iniquitous situation, and though the GBGB is unwilling to be drawn in public on its view of its funding future, the sport has found some support for its position in parliament. Looking into the issues of greyhound welfare, the cross-party select committee for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the bookmakers should pay their fair share regardless of where the gambling revenue was being generated.

“Bookmakers who profit from greyhound racing should contribute to welfare standards regardless of whether the profits are from high‐street stores, online or overseas betting,” said Neil Parish MP, the chair of the committee.

“The welfare of racing greyhounds shouldn’t be at the whim of bookmakers who can simply choose to contribute or not. The Government should consider introducing a statutory levy or an alternative betting rights model to protect animal welfare.”

Bearing in mind UK horseracing’s successes in pushing to get a levy replacement on to the government’s legislative agenda, it might not be beyond hope that the dogs could similarly be thrown a funding lifeline. The situation is complicated by the Bookmakers Afternoon Greyhound Service (BAGS) relationship whereby the bookmakers pay a further £24m for the rights to televise daytime meetings. This represents over half of all dogs races run in the UK, and one suggestion from the MPs was that a substantial rise in the fees paid by BAGS could help bridge the funding gap.

Such a move – or any other fixed system of funding – is, of course, unlikely to find favour with the bookmakers for whom the story about greyhounds in the past 20 years has long been one of managed decline. Yet the argument isn’t borne out by the facts. It remains among the top five spectator sports in the UK and is a vital element of the betting eco-system, whether online or in the shops.

The hope is that the Wimbledon reprieve might herald more than just a temporary change of fortunes and might be the harbinger of a better funded future.

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