Are betting exchanges a possible solution to the problems facing the U.S. Thoroughbred industry, which in 2008 saw its annual pari-mutuel handle fall for the fourth time in six years, dropping over 7% to a 10-year low? The Thoroughbred Owners of California thinks they may be, having recently signed a letter of agreement with betting exchange giant Betfair to have the UK-based company promote California racing abroad while TOC helps BetFair obtain statutory and regulatory approval to operate a betting exchange in California.
Betfair, which has been trying for several years to gain access to the U.S. market, is also believed to be a leading candidate to buy TVG, whose parent company, Macrovision, announced its intention to sell TVG last year. Though there are no confirmed suitors, others rumored to be potential buyers of the racing network and Advance Deposit Wagering platform include Churchill Downs Inc.; Marc Nathanson, a cable TV industry billionaire and father of TVG president David Nathanson; and an industry consortium that could include Keeneland, the New York Racing Association, former Hollywood Park chairman R.D. Hubbard, and Los Alamitos racetrack owner Edward Allred.
Betfair, a privately held company, was founded in June of 2000, using a technologically advanced platform permitting individuals to go online and bet against one another on a wide range of events, including horse racing, sports, politics and even reality television shows. By taking commissions of 2%-5% from winning bets, the company offers extremely low takeout and has built enormous volume: it claims to have over one million customers from 140 countries, with 100,000 or more active players in a given week. (UPDATE: Betfair said in October 2008 that it signed up its two millionth customer; see comments section, below) Its wagering platform handles over five million bets per day. In 2007, Betfair had 42 million English pounds in earnings before interest, depreciation, taxes and amortization on revenue of 240 million pounds. According to its annual report (which can be seen here), Betfair has 110 million pounds cash on hand.
CONCERNS ABOUT BETFAIR
The problem many see with Betfair is that the company pays a small percentage for the rights to races on which it handles wagers. In England, for example, it pays a bit over 10% of gross profits on racing wagers. In some cases, however, it pays no fees at all, as is currently the case with racing from the U.S. Betfair currently accepts bets on American racing, but only from customers outside of the U.S., and it does not have rights to any video signals. Betfair is acutely aware of concerns from racing interests in the U.S. who believe betting exchanges would cannibalize pari-mutuel betting and decrease revenue to tracks and purses. It addresses some of those fears in this pamphlet, which was designed to appease the racing industry in the United Kingdom.
Another concern raised about Betfair centers on wagers it accepts that a specific horse will lose, prompting worries about race-fixing. But Betfair has cooperated in several investigations involving horse racing and sports betting, giving authorities access to detailed betting information as part of its memorandum of understanding.
Drew Couto, the president of TOC, said the letter of agreement with BetFair was signed last month. He believes wagering will continue to suffer unless the industry distances itself from Albert Einstein's definition of insanity: doing the same thing time after time and expecting a different result. “That really describes our industry's approach to this sport and business over the last decade,” Couto said.
“Going forward,” he added, “we have to face two very important realities. “First, we have allowed the sport to basically disappear. It's no longer a sport, but simply a justification to gamble and wager, and as a wagering proposition we know it's not the most attractive. We have to go back and make it a sport. We have to give the sport some structure to have it make sense for the fans, make some very serious fundamental changes to focus on the sporting aspect of racing. We have left it largely to the tracks to be the stewards of the sport, and they only care about the financial side.
“Second,” Couto said, “we have to adopt new ways our fans can participate. New wagers, betting exchanges. We have to embrace these new ways of playing as ancillary to the way we currently operate, so it's new and fresh. That includes tournament-style wagering that was approved by the RCI (Association of Racing Commissioners International) last summer. If we don't begin to do things differently and find new ways to operate, we are bound to be the definitive example of what Einstein said.”
CAN RACING DEVELOP ITS OWN BETTING EXCHANGE?
Chris Scherf, executive vice president of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations of North America, a racetrack trade organization, for years has advocated that North American tracks consider developing their own betting exchange. He sees the trend in downward handle as a serious crisis.
“We've got to look into pricing (the takeout charge on pari-mutuel bets), the product that's being provided and the convenience factor for wagering,” Scherf said. “We need to make the same kind of concerted effort on handle that is currently being made to improve the safety and welfare issues. Track by track, you can get swamped in a million problems, but this has to be at the top of the pile. We are losing bettors. What do we have to do to change that aspect of the business, the part that provides us revenue? Of course, the entire debacle of cutting off signals in the last year (due to contractual disagreements between tracks and horsemen over ADW splits) was extremely detrimental to any kind of sustained gambling business.
“The problem,” Scherf said, “is we've got tracks and horsemen both saying they need more money in this economy. But the first thing we need is an engaged gambling public, and they should be at the top of the list.”
Scherf said he is “somewhere in between fear and welcoming” Betfair into the industry. “We had no master plan for how ADW would fit in and now we are trying to retrofit it, which is causing a lot of angst and problems. We need to spend more time developing a strategy (for exchange betting), though it's difficult to do that when you have a wide disparity throughout the industry in resources and markets.”
Lonny Powell, an industry consultant based in Lexington, Ky., who previously served in executive positions with racetracks (including head of Santa Anita Park), the ADW company Youbet.com and as president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, said BetFair has done a good job of “mainstreaming themselves” in recent years by sharing more of its profits with the racing industry in Europe.
“It's here to stay,” Powell said of Betfair and exchange betting. “When I was in the ADW world, I wished they would just go away, but I don't feel that way anymore. We're like an ice cream store that only sells vanilla, but you can go over to Baskin Robbins and get 33 flavors. We need variety.”
Powell, who said he is optimistic the industry will find a solution to its present challenges, believes racing interests should look at developing their own betting exchange. “If the industry could somehow take this wagering crisis a little more seriously and rather than find ways to kill something, find ways to make it work, we can grow the gambling dollar,” he said. “A Betfair type of platform can be operated by U.S. racing interests. The economic model that Betfair offers is flawed, but we all agree our current model is flawed, too. I've got to believe a Betfair type of platform would work. Our product is stale, and our wagering levels are stale.”
INTEGRITY ISSUES REMAIN A CONCERN
The reason for declines in handle go beyond a limited product line, said Mike Maloney, a professional gambler in Kentucky who has become an outspoken advocate for horseplayers at industry conferences and who served as an ad hoc member of a Kentucky Horse Racing Commission Task Force. “We are at a very significant crossroads in racing,” Maloney said, “probably the biggest one in my lifetime. The financial crisis is magnifying our problems, but the problems have to be dealt with before racing can recover. The economy may improve, but racing's problems will still be there.
“Our customer base is aging, and they've lost a lot of their faith in the integrity of racing,” he said. “As they age, they aren't being replaced. The second problem is the takeout is too high. We can't attract new players and are having a hard time holding on to existing ones. It's exacerbated because the takeout keeps going up. With competition from other gambling opportunities, you can't get away with that any more. It's roughly 5% in other forms of gambling – sports, table games, trading options – but it's 20% for us. New York just raised takeouts; trifectas are 26% now, and I just refuse to play it. Kentucky wants to raise takeout. What other business in this economic climate would consider racing prices?
“Third,” Maloney said, “racing integrity problems are real, and they are not exaggerated. If anything, they probably are underplayed. Trainers who use drugs to cheat; unsecured wagering pools with outdated technology; unregulated participants allowed access into those pools. People are just beginning to learn about some of the problems in these areas. In the last couple of years the light is being shined on them. These are serious problems that need to be dealt with. Big players realize they can't trust the pools they are playing money into.”
Finally, Maloney said, the corporate mentality of many racetracks has hurt the game. “There is a disconnect with customers with some of these racetrack holding companies. They don't really understand their business, and there's too much short-term bottom line thinking; cutting costs, worrying about the next quarterly report, and too little thought about long-term improvement of the product.”
Maloney, who called betting exchanges a “two-edged sword” because of how they would cannibalize pari-mutuel betting, said the industry has had a wake-up call after being “rocked by betting and drug scandals and threatened” by the federal government. “This crossroad we're at, what we do from here, will determine the fate of racing.”
(Do you have an opinion on how the industry reverses the trend in declining handle? We're interested in your comments below and in your thoughts about betting exchanges, the subject of the Daily Paulick Poll, which can be found on the left-hand column of the Paulick Report home page.)
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