Mark Davies has been pretty fascinating to read as a blogger, and following his blog allows you to study some history. He was one of the Betfair founders, and has been the point man working with governments, racing alphabets and the overall betting industry for many years.
The last ten years - and not only for racing but many other industries - has been wild. Disruptive technologies, the internet, video on mobile phones, the rise of new competitors like poker have all made a dent and changed the landscape forever. This is nothing new. However, as with any disruptive technology or technological change, it can be planned for and embraced, or fought.
In the UK, racing chose to fight.
That has not worked out very well.
Early on, when the internet and betfair were beginning to get a toehold in betting, racings alphabets were encouraged by the new guard to partner, plan and embrace this change. The response was that "not too many people use the internet, or this new wagering" or something to that effect and it was at first ignored (think music v napster). After some time passed, when it was being proven that people in fact do like new technology and the internet thing might actually catch on, the focus shifted to legal fights.
The legal fight (and we see it here almost daily with ADW wagering, our only growing segment) was to hammer it for more money, which as a corollary will probably destroy it. Problem solved! Destroying something is always preferred, if we don't own it. The road taken was to try and prove this new technology made people bookmakers so each trade should be charged like a bookmaker. Poppycock to anyone who has ever used it, but a solid racing narrative that captured easy-to-scare participants. Plus, who doesn't want more money anyway?
This fight lasted many years, which racing spent many hours and considerable dollars on. Last week even their own lawyers have concluded their argument is folly.
It gets worse, though.
Because you have fought someone for so long, how can you now work with them? It seems you don't. For example, Mark took a trip around the racetracks a couple of years ago asking "what will racing look like in 2020 and what can we do about it". Some ideas from Betfair-tech and others was to build something to take advantage of the Iphone and Blackberry surge. It involved wifi at tracks and more.
"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)."
This is something that definitely should be planned for, I think we all agree. Wifi at racecourses, webpages, video replays and the like which are mobile optimized can enhance on-track experiences, just like NFL.com and MLB.com have done for their live game spectators to spectacular success.
Sounds right, but maybe not. When bringing a new partnership to tackle these ideas to racing Mark got an interesting response.
"The answer I got was, “Not everyone owns an iPhone.”"
The period seems be summed up in this paragraph:
"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."
Righto, and when you keep losing court decision after court decision, that is not an opinion, it's fact. Knowing when to quit and shift is important for any industry or business.
We are currently on the same course here in North America it seems, doesn't it? It's a fight, a struggle, to keep the status-quo. To not take a shot, to not change. We are not unlike newspapers.
It made me think of "The Dip" a neat little diddy written by Godin a few years ago:
"Every day at most papers is going to be just a little bit worse than the day before. Every day you stay is a bad strategic decision for your career because every day you get better at something that isn’t that useful-and you are another day behind others who are learning something more useful. The only reason to stay is the short-term pain associated with quitting. Winners understand that taking that pain now prevents a lot more pain later. "
Our chance is still here, and there is still a sliver of a window open. Do we open that window and try and walk through it, or do we board it up? If racing here is like the UK, and by all accounts it is, I sense we will be doing the latter. I hope we don't complain too much when find out that spending time "getting better at something that isn't useful" doesn't help the sport. After all, it's happened before.