By Ray Paulick The challenges that confront racing seem to be the sport's universal language, and potential solutions, it seems, are similar from one continent to another. Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, CEO of the Hong Kong Jockey Club and chairman of the Asian Racing Federation, outlined those challenges and proposed some solutions during his opening address of the 32nd Asian Racing Conference in Tokyo on Tuesday morning.
Looking back on the last conference, held in Dubai in January 2007, Englebrecht-Bresges referred to the “racing without borders” theme that required a strategic plan to deal with the harmonization of regulatory issues and business strategies. Some progress has been made on the regulatory front, he said, but many hurdles remain before international commingling of pari-mutuel wagers becomes commonplace. “It must be a winning proposition for all stakesholders,” Engelbrecht-Bresges said, including customers, governments and operators. “Currently,” he said, “we are not structured correctly to deal with the challenge.” Among the hurdles are laws in some countries, most notably Hong Kong and Japan, that prohibit or restrict commingled betting; double taxation on commingled bets; marketing and sponsorship issues; TV and data rights questions, and software challenges among tote companies that will require investment and commitment by the various stakeholders. “We will struggle if we won't change,” he said. Engelbrecht-Bresges outlined what he called “three guiding principles” to address the challenges. Racing must exert influence on the regulatory side, he said, because “the integrity of the sport is a fundamental issue. Drugs will bring the sport to its knees if we don't proactively fight this problem.” He referenced cycling and how the burden of doping could cost the sport dearly in lost television rights if not addressed. Secondly, Engelbrecht-Bresges said, the industry must facilitate the sharing of best practices in racing and in other outside industries by bringing together stakeholders who have common interests. Finally, he said, bigger organizations must mentor smaller organizations, especially those countries who are in the early stages of expanding their racing and/or breeding industries. While some countries are in that early stage, Engelbrecht-Bresges said, overall there is stagnancy for the Asian Racing Federation members, with six-year projections that show pari-mutuel wagering turnover declining while other forms of gambling enjoy moderate growth. “We will be a dinosaur,” he said, adding, “it's not that we are unattractive. But we have to offer different value propositions.” Not surprisingly, those value propositions are predicated on knowing what customers want, especially new customers that racing needs if it is to survive. He called for all jurisdictions to conduct strategic assessments, and outlined some of the findings the Hong Kong Jockey Club discovered in its own research. Non-racing fans see no relevance in the current racing schedule/fixtures, programs and bet types; much of the activities are not appealing to young people, women, families, and the middle class. Racing lacks innovation, and has a poor approach to its “channel strategy” and customer loyalty programs. Furthermore, he said, industry fragmentation is a key reason for slow response to the challenges. Regarding channel strategy, Engelbrecht-Bresges said racing is “catering to its current customers” through its web sites, where new customers “get lost. We need an integrated channel strategy” that will appeal to existing, new and potential customers, he added. Engelbrecht-Bresges said racing must reach the next generation, but that the strategy of attack must be powered by customers, especially the new customers with which the industry must learn how to better communicate. “We are in a race,” said the German native who has been with the Hong Kong Jockey Club for 10 years. “Is it a race we can win?” Engelbrecht-Bresges then showed a slide of America's new president-elect, Barack Obama, featuring the campaign theme of change that stated “Yes, we can.” “I say,” Englebrecht-Bresges concluded, “'Yes, we must.'” THE REST OF TUESDAY MORNING'S conference program was baffling. Following Engelbrecht-Bresges was Hiroshi Okuda, who rose through the ranks of the Toyota Motor Corporation to become president and later chairman and is now chairman of the board of governors for the Japan Racing Association. It's possible Okuda brought the wrong speech to the Asian Racing Conference, for he devoted his entire talk to “global warming issues.” I guess if we all rode horses instead of automobiles, we could help develop a low carbon society, as Okuda said is necessary. But I'm not sure what major impact racing executives could have on global warming. If that talk didn't cause the conference focus to jump the tracks, the next two certainly did. Robyn Williams (no, not that one), described as a “mad cap science presenter” from Australia, enlightened (?) the audience about how the world will be changing due to technology. You know, robotics, energy and transportation. Hell, I learned that from watching too many episodes of “The Jetsons” as a kid. In truth, Williams was at least entertaining, and would have made a good lunch-time speaker. But he added little to the serious issues at hand among the Asian Racing Federation delegates. Andrew Main, the morning's final speaker, likewise, had little to say linking racing to his area of expertise as business editor of The Australian newspaper. Filling the opening morning with three speakers who had little relevance to racing left many in the audience scratching their heads and wondering who thought this was a good idea.
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