Thursday, 29 April 2010


As French legislation moves ever closer, more and more operators appear to be lining up to suggest that it simply isn't going to work.

An op-ed piece in Le Monde the other day, signed jointly by Betclic, Bwin, and Unibet, laid out the reasons to be fearful. Isabelle Parise, co-chair of Mangas Gaming, told the IGaming 360 conference in Madrid yesterday that there are "many things that are dreadful" in the legislation, which, as it stands, is "the worst you can imagine". And Gigi Levy, CEO of, threw into a results presentation yesterday the thought that it would be more difficult for foreign operators to get a French licence than it will be for French ones. He commented that his company operates happily under its Gibraltar licence by the terms of European law, which seems to me to indicate that they plan to continue to do so when the law comes in, just as the amiable and eloquent Patrick Partouche suggested would be true of his eponymous outfit a few weeks ago.

At Betfair we had the latest in a long series of meetings about France this morning, pondering how absurd and ridiculous the new law is, and discussing whether our since-foundation stance of complying with national legislation obliges us to withdraw from the market until we are in a position to apply formally to operate, if it ever becomes commercially viable to do so. It would be an arduous and depressing task to contact our French customers with that sort of unhappy news; but the law as it is written would require us to close accounts and block French IP addresses, with risk of arrest for non-compliance. Operators who do comply with it would have to pull out of France.

Absurd and ridiculous, though, the law unquestionably is.

The simple fact is that we know, and customers know, that there are plenty of work-arounds for IP blocking, should people chose to use them; and without operator co-operation, the chances of the French government enforcing their legislation - short of sending the police randomly into people's front rooms and catching them on their computers - is zero. Operator co-operation will only come from those with brand names to protect, so the law will shut out precisely the sort of company that ought naturally to be welcomed in.

Anyone else who wants a bit of the action in defiance of the French government has the playing field wide open, so the black market will flourish. By France's own estimates, it already equates to around 5,000 sites, even before the addition of new rogue operators which are likely to pop up in the way that music file-sharing sites did when Napster first got banned. The music industry has struggled to recover from that position ever since, but the French have chosen not to learn from past mistakes. Instead, they will deny people proper choice and competition and force those who want it to find it in the illegal market. They are failing their citizens in consequence, and it's a shame to see it.

Meanwhile, should you be sunning yourself on the Cote d'Azur this summer and realise you've forgotten to place your weekend's bets on any sport back home with the account you opened in London, unlucky. You can quite legally call your bank which is licensed in England, order from your local bookshop at home, or change your utility provider online while you think of it - not to mention whatever other uses you might want to put the internet to while you relax on your hols. But you can't both adhere to the law and type in the URL of your betting account and place bets in your own country on your domestic sport, because in their wisdom, the French say that's interdit.

Looks like it'll be Tuscany for us this year, then.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

A bit of Xenophonobia

I see that Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has been encouraged to 'take on' the gambling industry by the independent South Australian senator Nick Xenophon. Xenophon told ABC's breakfast programme that he thinks online gambling is 'a bad idea', and he says that there is great 'potential for corruption' in online sports betting.

Not that this is anything new, but what sort of world do some people live in?

Surely if a 'potential for corruption' were the basis for whether something was allowed or not, we wouldn't be able to do anything? There's 'potential for corruption' in being a politician, and Lord knows there are plenty of examples of that potential for corruption coming to fruition globally over the years to suggest that it is a risk we should take seriously.

Of course, I would stress that I am not suggesting that Mr. Xenophon himself falls into the category of risk; but it seems to me that his sweeping statement doesn't allow the same caveat for me, or the company I represent.

It's one thing to say that you think something is a 'bad idea', even if millions of people (that's three million at Betfair alone, as you may have seen this week) disagree with you and believe that they ought to be allowed to make their own grown-up decisions about what they do. But to suggest that the reason for it being so is that there is a 'potential for corruption' is just ludicrous. Why not legislate the potential down to a minimal risk, like we do in every other regulated walk of life?

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Come back Chris, all is forgiven

I got a text earlier this evening from an old mate who wanted to know why I wasn't at the Betview Annual Awards at the Hilton Park Lane. Not long after, he texted me again to ask me my tip for the Online Company of the Year.

The short-list, it transpired, was Betfair, William Hill, and Ladbrokes.

I texted him back pretty quickly: I said I thought it would be William Hill.

Well, I wasn't going to say Betfair - it would have been too predictable an answer, coming from me, it was unlikely we'd be a realistic option (and as I gather we were trading at 1000 on the night and were booed when the short-list was read out, I suspect that view was shared by many there).

Of the other two, it seemed a no-brainer: Hills have done a lot online in the last year, while Ladbrokes are considered to have done so little in comparison that they recently fired their CEO, Chris Bell, and - passing over their MD of e-Gaming, John O'Reilly, for the top job, and appointing Richard Glynn who was welcomed by the City on the basis that he has 'online expertise'.

Ladbrokes won.

I wonder what Chris, John, the Ladbrokes Board, and the City make of that?

Paxo - a great stuffing

I saw something last night that you don't see very often.

Having missed the 10 o'clock news, I switched on Newsnight, and watched as Jeremy Paxman got well and truly roasted by the unlikeliest looking fellow from Plaid Cymru.

Paxo was repeatedly told that he hadn't done his homework; was sent scuffling through his papers after allegedly quoting a misleading figure and being corrected; and had seemingly fair challenges thrown back at him with interest. By the end of the interview, he really looked something of a interviewing novice. It is fair to say, in my opinion at least, that he got totally stuffed.

Paxo came in to see us at Betfair once, back in 2007. Newsnight were doing a feature of 'Ten Years of Blair's Britain', and they selected three businesses as case studies: an iron foundry that had been going for hundreds of years before Blair arrived (and was responsible, among other things, for Big Ben); a yuppie hotel which had been founded in the years before Blair came to power; and a business which had not existed before the election of the Labour government: us.

For a man with a reputation as something of a rottweiler, Paxman was sweetness itself. He wandered around the office seemingly in complete awe, and was repeatedly extremely complimentary about the success of the business. In fact, he was a pleasure to chat to. But what was striking was how little he understood the financial markets. He walked around our telephone betting floor and was clearly completely baffled by the numbers being quoted; but my attempt to put them into context by talking about the City left him even more confused.

Most amusing on his visit, though, was that he had clearly come with an angle, and his angle was this: isn't it ironic that a Labour government should have put in place legislation (the Enterprise Investment Scheme) which allowed a group of people to get seed funding for a gambling company - an organisation that surely must, by definition, take the shirt off the back of people who couldn't afford it (the very people, in other words, that a Labour government was meant to protect).

We were recorded, of course; and the interview was conducted in very relaxed circumstances, walking around - nothing like the stark, no-place-to-hide, environment in which he has been quizzing the party leaders this week.

But it was the closest I have got (or am likely to get) to the full Paxo treatment: not happy that I was not giving him a line in response that allowed him to run with that particular slant, he must have asked me basically the same question upwards of twenty times. Taking a leaf from Michael Howard's book, I wouldn't answer in the way he was hoping. It's probably a good job I hadn't had the chance to learn from the Plaid Cymru bloke, or I might have come back with both barrels.

Monday, 26 April 2010

What would you wish for?

I had a meeting today in which I was asked what I would wish for from an in-coming government. From a purely professional point of view, you'll understand...

I think I'd probably wish for two things - one for the industry as a whole, and one for Betfair specifically.

From Betfair's point of view, I'd love an incoming government to say, "you know this debate about bookmakers on Betfair? Well as far as we can see, you've been raising it for a long time now and you've presented nothing new. Go away, and do not darken our doors again, unless you have something new to say."

OK, I know I'm onto a loser on that one. So, I'd make do instead with them making that statement after one more round of the old debate: if it helps to put it to bed, we'll go through it one more time on the understanding that when we win that one as well and once again it is decided that there really is no case to answer (as it will be), then we get that response.

As for the industry wish...

This one would be that the new government makes decisions about us as if we were any other industry, rather than starting from the premise that we are, ooh, just a little bit embarrassing and not something they really want to touch - or would ever touch, were it not for the significant contribution the industry makes to the public purse.

I said it a few months ago, but if there is any appetite from the new government to attract more betting to the UK's jurisdiction, then it isn't just the tax rate that needs to be addressed for online gambling (as many imply): there has, in addition, to be a proper assessment of what the government gives the industry back for the payment that it (the industry) makes.

Having as a starting point the idea that gambling is a legitimate, licensed industry, and that decisions relating to it should be taken accordingly (without the ledger being balanced with the 'oh yes, but darling, they're gambling!' that you get the impression exists at the moment), would be a great way to kick off a new relationship.

It would also allow the in-coming government to make a proper stand for the industry in Europe and around the world - something that I can't help feeling currently happens much more sporadically than would be the case if we were selling widgets.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Sacré bleu

I see that the French are expecting to have 30 applications for licences under their new gambling legislation.

That's down from the 200 that they originally expected; and from the 100 that they revised that estimate to; and the 50 that they then settled on.

And it's a far cry from the 5,000-odd online gambling sites that they identified in their government-commissioned Durieux report.

I wonder what that tells us.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Fostering support

While we wait for the second round of the leaders' debate on television tonight, and exchange views on the Chancellor and his shadows squabbling yesterday, it's nice to see that the agreement between the betting industry and the Professional Players' Federation to help raise awareness among players of the issues in sport gets a positive airing in the Sports Ministerial equivalent in today's Independent.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Just one volcano; and how to get a job.

It's been a busy week, you might think, from the lack of postings.

Well, you'd be wrong. But it's certainly been an odd one. I've spent most of it stuck in Bangkok, between a volcano and a pile of protesters, in a hotel which 'ran out' of internet connection. Such was the price for having gone to the Asian Racing Conference, and not having got out in time. I took off from Sydney on the afternoon of 15th April to the news that a volcano had erupted, and by the time we'd got to Bangkok, it was clear that our one-hour transit might last rather longer. But the sun was out in Thailand, at least, so it could have been worse.

Hats off to British Airways, who proceeded to put us up and feed us. (Passengers with Thai Airways weren't so lucky after the first day: they were apparently told to get their things together, and were taken back to the airport in expectation of getting on a plane. Only when they arrived did they discover that they were just being dumped...) But even bigger hats off to my parents, who held the fort at home with four kids while we awaited news on a 24-hour basis.

When we eventually took off, five days late, it was without knowing where we would be landing. The captain welcomed us aboard 'this flight to as close to London as we can get you', and, as we ticked off city after city on the moving map, updated us with an hour to go: "UK airspace is still closed. It may open up in half an hour, but if it doesn't, we have enough fuel on board to go round in circles for some time until things change." Thankfully, half an hour later, it did. We were one of the first planes to land, late on Tuesday night.

Betfair people were caught all over the globe by the eruption. Our two founders remain stranded - Ed Wray in South Africa, and Andrew Black in Montego Bay - both, at least, with their families. A number of my colleagues on the Executive Board had plans disrupted: Mathias Entenmann, who runs product, is still in California; Tony McAllister, our CTO, had to drive back - albeit only from the South of France; and our Commercial Director, Niall Wass, was (ironically) stuck in London (he lives in Malta). With another non-Exec, Josh Hannah, unable to get across from his home on the Pacific coast, yesterday's Board meeting was rather less crowded than usual. Meanwhile, one of my team, Susannah Gill, had to endure 32 hours by train back from Stockholm, via Hamburg and Brussels (among, presumably, many other places). What fun.

It's fortunate, then, that there doesn't seem to have been a great deal going on this week (just as was apparently true 80 years ago when BBC radio reported that there was 'no news' on 18th April). But in any case, if the ARC finished with a different kind of bang than we might have expected, it was still a well-organised event, and well worth even the extended trip.

I caught up with a number of people including our Australia CEO, Andrew Twaits; breakfasted, lunched, and dined with someone every day, including television presenter Bruce Clarke (whose girlfriend's expecting a baby), Government Relations Australia director Robin Harris (ditto), and former BHB head (and now solid Betfair man) Greg Nichols and his wife Victoria (who I should think have had quite enough of babies, thank you very much).

And on Wednesday night, I grabbed a couple of beers with one of my former hires, Hugh Taggart, who is now based in Sydney with Betfair.

Hugh holds the record for the cockiest approach I've ever had for a job, which I suspect will never be beaten. It remains one of my favourite Betfair stories.

I was sitting minding my own business at my desk in the summer of 2003 when my phone rang. The first words I heard when I picked it up were, "Hi... Mark Davies? My name's Hugh Taggart. I've just arrived from Australia, and I want to work for you."

"I'm sorry?"

"My name's Hugh Taggart. I've just landed from Australia, and I want to work for you. I've been following your story, and I love your business, and I'm hoping you'll give me a job."

You can imagine, I was somewhat taken aback. "What are you going to do if I don't have a job to give you?" I asked.

"Well," he said. "I've got enough money to last me a month. I'll look for another job and if I don't get one, I'll go back home."

It was the July Cup the following day, so I was spending my Saturday heading to Newmarket, by car, and having lunch with a table of interested stakeholders which happened to be a man short. I suggested to Tags that if he could make it to mine by 9am, could manage two hours there and two hours back telling me his story, and hold his own on a table of people he knew nothing about, I'd think about it.

He turned up at 8.55.

I offered him a job on the Monday!

Friday, 16 April 2010

Another gambling initiative with sport

Good to see another section of the gambling industry forming a voluntary agreement with sport - this time in Europe.

It looks like it's modelled broadly on the agreement that we put together as a consortium with the PPF, which I blogged about in February.

Proves that voluntary agreements do work. Not that that will stop SROC continuing to lobby for their levy, I shouldn't think.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

What's the product?

I see there's a lot more today in various places about the 'use of the racing product'.

Alan Jones's comments at the ARC are reported, for example, and then, most interestingly (and in my opinion disingenuously, given that he must know perfectly well that we are paying race fields around the country), Victorian Racing Minister Rod Hulls has issued a press release calling "on the Federal Government to give consideration to introducing national legislation to prevent ‘free riding’ by corporate bookmakers and betting exchanges which is undermining the viability of Australia’s racing industry." He says that racing is "presently facing serious challenges in dealing with ‘free riding’ by corporate bookmakers and betting exchanges that seem to think they can build a business on the free supply of raw materials."

Now, I wouldn't dispute the challenges being faced, although clearly I dispute the charge of us 'free-riding'. We're even paying the 1.5% turnover charge in NSW at the moment, under duress, even though it equates to 60% of our gross profit and we are challenging the turnover basis of the charge in court.

But it once again brings me to wonder what people think they mean when they talk about 'the racing product'. As I mentioned yesterday, it seems to me that they want to charge us for our product, betting, and not theirs, racing. If we're talking about 'using the racing product', we surely need to define what that actually means.

Let me preface everything that follows by stressing that it is not an attempt to argue for freeloading. On the contrary, I believe that we (the betting industry) should pay a fair share to racing (and we (Betfair) seek to do so worldwide). This musing is merely about the basis on which payment should be made - a basis which is (currently) clear in the UK (where it's charged on the gross profit of the betting operator) but which is disputed by many in racing (who would like to see a charge levied on turnover). So, there's no debate from me that something should be paid. I want to get closer to nailing down what is meant by 'paying for the racing product', and how, in my view, that is best done.

It seems to me that what racing wants to do is, somehow, monetise punters. Of the two sets of people who put money into the industry, the contribution by Owners is in paying for the horses, and to quote Peter Savill from yesterday, Punters then make a contribution on the other side of the ledger. (It's another debate as to whether owning racehorses should be a cost like a golf club membership, but let's for the moment accept that the ownership of horses delivers a public service of creating a sport and an industry which is then paid for in part by another section of the public, and punters are the ones who step up to the plate.)

Those jurisdictions which have betting run by racing can monetise the punters easily, because the punters are their customers. That is the reason that so many in racing lament the passing of the tote monopoly run by racing. But the fact is that it has passed (in the UK and Australia, at least), and today, in those jurisdictions, the punter is not racing's customer at all, but the betting shop's customer, being offered a smorgasbord of bets from which to choose.

Tradition has it that racing, which was at least in part created for betting, derives a financial return from betting; but if the sport were created today, that would probably not be the case. Betting is a peripheral industry that has developed on the back of racing, just as lobbying is a peripheral industry that has developed on the back of legislatures around the world. However, the tradition is there, and the racing industry would collapse without it. So we need to find a way to derive an economic return which makes the whole show sustainable.

Thus far, I think nothing is in dispute (not from any sensible operators, at any rate). But this brings home the fact that the sticking point is that, while it charges betting operators, racing actually wants to derive money from their (the betting operators’) customers, the punters.

In other words, when racing talks about charging for the 'racing product', what it means is that it wants to charge all those who use the racing product. It says it wants to charge only those who use it is a business capacity - hence the argument advanced by the BHA that there are business users on Betfair who ought to be charged - and traditionally (i.e. before the BHA argument about Betfair customers muddied the waters) that was deemed to mean betting operators. But in fact, if racing wants to charge for 'use of the product' on the basis of turnover, then it doesn't want to charge the operators, but the punters.

This will be obvious to all those who remember the days prior to 2001 when customers of UK bookmakers paid General Betting Duty on their bets. In other words, there was no debate that it was the punter, not the bookmaker, who was paying.

Moving to a Gross Profits Tax made clear that it was the commercial organisation which paid the fee. It (the organisation) derived a commercial benefit of its own (betting revenue) from being able to offer its product (betting) on an underlying commodity (racing) provided by someone else. Without the underlying product (racing), it couldn't create its own business (offering bets). Because of the traditional and historic reliance of racing on betting revenue, a fee of some sort made sense.

But the trouble we have today is that most people accept that the people who derive an economic benefit which should be paid for (that is, the people who have customers as a result of the racing industry “putting on the show”) are the bookmaking firms, and so they are the ones who are charged – despite the fact that it is generally accepted that it’s Punters who balance out the Owners’ ledger. Although when I say 'the trouble', it isn't (let me stress again) because I have a problem with that, but because it raises the question of when the product is being bought, and what happens to it afterwards.

Take the analogy I have heard being advanced by some Racing leaders that paying for the Racing Product is like buying Coca Cola.

The price of a can of Coke is set, and the argument advanced is that you have to pay for every can. It's no use saying that a can of Coke costs £1 and you only have 50p, because 50p doesn't buy you a can of Coke. You can see the point that is being made, and Peter V’Landys makes it repeatedly. But I think it is flawed.

The reason for that - or the question that is interesting - is what happens after I've bought the can of Coke.

What happens, for example, if I don't drink it as neat Coke, to get one drink out of it, but mix it with rum? Or what happens if, instead of pouring it all into one glass, straight from the fridge, I fill three glasses with ice, and hand drinks round to more people? I have still only bought one can of Coke. But, much like the analogy I advanced yesterday about buying petrol, I make my can of Coke go further. I do not expect to pay for the can of Coke on the basis of how many glasses I get out of it or how many people I serve it to; nor does the person from whom I bought the Coke gets his knickers in a twist about the margin I charge the people I serve my mixed drinks, because I have paid him already for his product and the amount that I purchased. I bought the Coke, not the glasses of drinks I subsequently handed out.

Surely the equivalent in racing of a can of Coca Cola - the product made by the organisation - is a race: the actual, physical race - the show that is being put on; the underlying product on which a betting operator then creates his business.

My business (as a buyer of Coke as a raw material) was serving drinks; my business as a buyer of racing as a raw material is offering bets. Coke is a major component of what I serve my customers, just as racing is a major part of my betting offering; but both are now a part of a variety of similar things.

(As an aside, you would never hear Coca Cola arguing that it ought to get a share of profits from the sale of other products like Orangina, even if someone comes into the bar to buy a Coke and then changes his mind. Some in British racing, in contrast, seem to believe it should get a share of FOBT revenue just because people go into the shop because there's a race on. But that's another story.)

This is where I think it gets a bit complicated, because of the lack of a physical commodity. When we were talking about consuming a physical commodity, then you know that the commodity runs out: you can't get an unlimited number of full glasses out of a single can of Coke. But in a world where you aren't actually consuming a physical product, you can: you don't actually need to consume the can you buy at all. It's almost as if your customers aren't drinking the Coke that you've bought, but just making a judgement about whether they like it. I need to have bought the can in order to be able to ask them if they like it; but once I've bought it, I can show the same can to an unlimited number of people, because each person I show it to doesn't actually diminish the amount of Coke in the can.

So, in that situation, if I buy one can of Coke and ask 100 people, of whom 50 change their minds, whether they like Coke, I don't expect to pay more for the can than someone who buys it and sells the whole thing to one person. I would think it fair to pay a fee commensurate with the economic benefit I derived from having the can available to run my business with, and I would expect the person who bought it and sold it to one customer to do the same.

Racing argues that every time someone bets, it is using the racing product. But is it? Why isn’t racing just the same as the can of Coke, without the creation, distribution and presence of which I would not have been able to ask people their view of whether it tastes good?

Put another way, if I back and lay a horse all day as a customer, whose product am I using? Personally, I don't think I am using racing's product, as the end customer. The operator has bought the racing product, and I am then using Betfair's product, which uses what Betfair bought off racing (the race fields, in the case of Australia) to create a new product which Betfair charge me for (my bet).

What this comes down to is that the only way that racing can charge for its product is to secure from those people who derive an economic benefit through having customers as a result of its existence a fee commensurate to the economic benefit those people derive from those customers. That long and complicated sentence reads: “the way to charge is through a gross profits tax on the operator”.

The only alternative is to accept that it is not the operators that racing wants to charge at all, but the end customer, even though that end customer is not actually racing's customer (unless racing wants to offer a betting product rather than a racing product), and even though the product being bought by that customer is not racing product, but betting product.

This is made trickier for racing by the changing world. To return to the Coke analogy, Coca-Cola used to sell nice, obvious, cans of Coke to traditional pubs which paid it a set fee for every can, and then in turn sold a full can on to a customer. But now it sells cans of Coke to trendy bars which dilute the Coke into multiple drinks for customers in the shape of Rum and Coke.

If Coca Cola insists on pricing being based on the 'use of its product', we need to establish whether the use of its product is predicated on the number of drinks sold which include some measure of Coke in them, or whether it is predicated on the amount of Coke sold. Because the same amount of Coke can today be used to make 100 mixed drinks as might, in earlier times, have constituted one drink sold. Does Coca-Cola own the Coke or the end drink?

All of which, finally, therefore boils down to one point which has come out of the ARC. When racing talks about 'a fair price for its product', is it refering to the sale (or use) of its own product, or the sale (or use) of someone else's?

If it argues that it needs a turnover tax, then in my view it's trying to tax something that is not its own to charge for - the end drink, not the Coca-Cola that forms its base. Its argument for a ‘fair return for use of its product’ can surely, therefore, only result in a charge based on gross profits.

I'd be interested to hear counter views.

Monday, 12 April 2010

The Big Debate

It lasted two hours; it went round in circles as these things often do; and, for a conference of international horseracing federations it spent too long on the parochial issue of the court case in New South Wales about whether Racing NSW has the right to charge on the basis of turnover.

But today's 'Big Debate' at the Asian Racing Conference in Sydney did at least do what it said in the programme. The discussion about wagering brought to the ARC what has previously been a taboo subject. Whether we are any further advanced is moot; but the audience's view of life was made clear by the single intra-debate round of applause that it gave, which came in response to the call from former BHB Chairman Peter Savill for racing to return to a funding model based on turnover.

On that basis, it was a bit depressing. In my view, a return to a turnover-based model would, at a stroke, remove all competition from the industry, and with it all innovation. In a competitive world, that would be a death knell for the racing industry, and I find it a shame that so many people in charge of racing in the audience around me continued to scoff when these points were all made by Edward Wray, co-founder and Chairman, as he put the Betfair view of the world.

But there were also reasons to be cheerful.

Followers of my career will know that rare are the occasions when I have agreed with Savill, but today I thought he made more sense than not.

I would dispute his turnover call, and his lauding of French legislation - praise for which was echoed by others on the panel (more of which another time, perhaps); and I think that his continued belief that the Betfair model is damaging for racing's integrity is mis-judged.

But he made the sensible point that of the sin taxes paid around the world - alcohol, cigarettes, petrol, and gambling - gambling stands alone as having no underlying commodity; and as such, it is easily avoided in an internet world. And if his solution - to legislate for IP rights to allow racing to set its product fee - has been tried (by him) without success, I still thought he put his case well. He certainly seemed more relaxed than I've heard him before. Perhaps retirement has mellowed him!

Equally, credit to Nic Coward, for the second day in a row, for what I thought was a measured and well-put position.

Inevitably, his oft-repeated and in my view nonsense line that there are bookmakers evading levy on Betfair made an appearance, but even more so than was true of Savill, I felt that more of what he said today suggested common ground than didn't.

He believes that both government and opposition are committed to replacing the levy for a commercial mechanism, which I am less confident about than he is; and he is convinced that if they do so, the amount of money that comes into racing will go up, which I fear he will end up being disappointed by (because I believe the product is worth less to the betting industry than he thinks it is). But that's a commercial negotiation, and I wouldn't quibble with him making his case. He did it well.

Ed, who spoke alongside bookmakers Alan Eskander and Con Kafataris (both of whom impressed), made all the points you would expect from our side. He pointed out that racing's share of the wagering market has plummeted in ten years, from more than 70 to less than 40% (in retail outlets, not to mention online); and he lamented the lack of punter representation in a debate which he said was too focused on the cost of racing for owners.

He underlined that a conference that has heard so much about how to attract "customers" should understand that "customers" means "punters", and attracting them means giving them the product they want to buy, and not the product you want to sell them; while in a similar vein, Eskander pointed out that monopoly totes return 80-84% to punters; bookies around 94%; sports bookies around 96%; and online casinos and poker around 99%; so racing needs to be wary of its competition.

Indeed, nothing from any of Ed, Alan or Con will have surprised any regular readers of this blog.

It could be argued, I suppose, that nothing in connection with this debate should surprise readers of this blog at all; but even a battle-worn veteran like me (told once that I could roll out the Queen if I wanted to - I just wasn't wanted in Australia) was surprised by the approach taken by the Chief Executive of Racing New South Wales, Peter V'Landys, alongside whom the rest of the panel could look relaxed without difficulty.

V'Landys' opening statement was that it would be good to take the emotion out of this debate, and with that, I agreed.

His second statement then did the opposite, although that is not the only reason that from then on, I didn't agree with anything else. I didn't agree with everything that was said by Coward or Savill, either, but where it would be impossible not to credit them both with being on top of their briefs and expressing their positions in a measured way, V'Landys seemed to me, in contrast, to struggle with some of the basic building-blocks of his argument.

Twice - I honestly thought the first time that I must have misunderstood him - he said that the argument that gambling is an elastic product had been proved to be wrong by the following piece of evidence: turnover had gone up by 36% this year, but revenue had only gone up by 8%. Ergo, the product wasn't elastic.

Now, I'm no economist. But surely anyone running a business needs to know that by "elasticity", people mean the relationship between turnover and margin, and their combined effect on revenue. So, turnover of 100 on margin of 10% makes revenue of 10. If margin is cut to 5% and turnover increases to 200, revenue remains 10; and the product being sold is deemed to have perfect elasticity (or, to be strictly accurate, elasticity of -1).

So, if turnover has gone up by 36%, then the big question is how much of that turnover has been the result of a fall in margin, and how much of it is new money coming in from other places. Given the fall in racing's market share, and the economic situation worldwide, it would seem likely that the revenue growth is driven by the margin cut. But if we speculate that it's unlikely that margin has gone down by more than 36%, wouldn't the figures presented make exactly the case that it was being suggested had been knocked down?

V'Landys' didn't mention margin other than saying 'but our margin has gone down'. This means that unfortunately we're none the wiser; but also, which seems to me to be key, it suggests that he didn't understand the point he was trying to make. Given that he has predicated his entire strategy as CEO on it, that must be worrying for supporters of Racing NSW's stance.

That aside, it was another much-repeated phase during the debate that got me thinking most. That phrase was, "racing must be allowed to set the price of its product".

I think this is an interesting one. On the face of it, I agree. But it seems to me that racing is not trying to set the price of its product, but the price of ours.

Racing's product is racing, whereas our product is betting. But what racing wants to do, to Peter Savill's call, is to set the price of racing on the back of betting turnover. Savill even stated that 'racing must be paid every time its product is used and not just when bookmakers make money'.

So, when is the racing product used? I would argue that it is used when someone makes a judgment on the fair value of a horse, having assessed the runners and riders, the going, the form, and the weather. That judgment is made, and then bets are placed. And betting turnover is predicated on - well, the cost of bets. It's not predicated on further use of the racing product at all.

An analogy which might resonate with Peter V'Landys would be this: V'Landys always argues that bookmakers paying a turnover fee is like people buying petrol, and the garage should be allowed to set its price.

OK, so the garage sets its price. You rock up in a big gas-guzzling car, and buy 50 litres of petrol. At the same moment, I arrive and fill up a series of tanks, also taking 50 litres. We pay the same price: 50 litres bought at the cost set by the garage.

But when I get home, it becomes apparent that I'm using my 50 litres differently from how you are using yours. Why not? I've paid for my 50 litres, and I can now do anything I want with it.

If I use half of it in my fuel-efficient Mini, a bit more of it in my lawn-mower, and the remainder in my scooter, such that I get 1000 miles out of my 50 litres of fuel to your 200, the garage doesn't suddenly get a mileage bonus. The point at which it stopped being the garage's product was the moment of sale.

So I'm interested by how this debate will end up panning out. Racing has a right to charge for its product - on that, I think we are all agreed. Where we differ is the basis on which it can charge, in order not to discriminate against different users.

And in my view, understanding exactly what the product is that it is selling is key to the debate. Because one thing is for certain: it isn't selling bets. We are.

Asian Racing Conference

The ARC kicked off today in Sydney, with the stand-out speaker being an Australian called Peter Sheahan.

He talked about how to engage Generation Y, and challenged the racing folk present to attract youth in order to make racing 'cool', citing brands such as Burberry and Mambo as organisations which had successfully recruited both young and old by targeting the former and getting the latter as a consequence.

Nic Coward briefly presented Racing for Change, and he came a creditable second place in the line of speakers - no disgrace given that Sheahan was outstandingly good, but also not difficult given what I thought were disappointing performances from the other speakers.

He (NC) was relaxed and authoritative, and spoke, in my view, better than I have heard him for a long time. His voice was pitched notably lower than recent occasions when I've been present, which probably has a lot to do with the fact that he wasn't ranting about us. He probably heads the (reasonably long) list of people who are effective and talented communicators on a range of subjects, but suddenly and inexplicably lose the plot when getting onto the subject of Betfair.

He said he fully supported Sheahan's views, which brought me back to the thoughts I had in January about how I think British racing talks about wanting to embrace the Facebook generation, without necessarily understanding that that means doing so on their (the FB generation's) terms, rather than their own (racing's). We'll see.

Tomorrow's schedule includes the 'Big Debate' on wagering, when our chairman and co-founder Edward Wray joins a panel which will include Peter Savill, the former Chairman of the BHB, and Peter V'Landys, the CEO of Racing NSW (and indeed Nic Coward). Ralph Topping was due to be on the panel, but hasn't made it. One can only assume that he's stuck somewhere.

No cheap jokes, please, given that I managed to avoid one myself.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Dog bites man

I see there's a headline on page 14 of the Racing Post today which reads, "Hills in call for government to tackle Betfair over levy".

In it, Ralph Topping (for it is he) states that William Hill pays more than three times as much levy as Betfair (that'll be because you make three times as much money on racing, Ralph), and that Betfair receives 'extremely favourable tax treatment'.

I would write more, but I'm afraid I'm falling asleep (as I am sure are you).

Just before I nod off, I've got one thought, though. Why don't the Racing Post just leave page 14 untouched for the next year? It will save them having to re-format each time, and I'm not sure anyone will notice.

Can anyone tell me any other story that hasn't changed in eight years that is still reported by the newspapers?

Grand National

I landed in Sydney this morning, where I am attending the Asian Racing Conference, to the largest flurry of e-mails I have had for some time. Most of them revolved around the Grand National.

In any circumstances other than that I would have been roughly over Darwin at the time the race went off, I'd have been very sorry to miss it. The Grand National holds a huge number of special memories for me.

One of the first things I remember in my life was watching Red Rum win his third National, at my grandparents' small terraced house in Kensal Rise. It made an agreeable change to the usual Saturday afternoon fare, which involved my grandfather watching the wrestling on World of Sport.

Four years later, I persuaded the nanny, with both my parents away, to let me raid the house-keeping jar for a couple of quid, which she then obligingly put on Aldaniti for me at Datchet's tiny Turf Accountant - her first-ever visit to such an establishment. I put the stake back in the jar later, and the winnings kept me in Cola Bottles for some time to come.

In 1992, my first year as part of Cambridge University Boat Club's squad, the Grand National and the Boat Race took place on the same day (April 4th). I delayed our crew's departure from our base at the Bank of England Sports Club in Roehampton because of my insistence that I wanted to see the titles of Grandstand, complete with the music from Champions. Now, just a bar of the theme tune is enough to transport me back to that emotional day, which saw Cambridge beaten in a spookily identical fashion to that by which they triumphantly won last week. (Goldie won by three and a half lengths, and I almost took the bows off Isis in my eagerness to get their water along Crabtree Reach, more or less opposite where Betfair's offices are today.)

The memories of this year's race will sadly be limited to the various pieces of commentary that appeared in my inbox, although they give what seems a complete picture. From comments about McCoy's emotional interview, through reports about Ladbrokes' site going down (sorry - couldn't resist!), to a gleeful missive from my parents telling me that they had backed the winner; it was all there.

The bulk of the mails I got, though, involved discussion about what the result means for racing, given two things: first, that it couldn't really have been a worse result for the bookmakers; and second, whether it is right or wrong that the over-round should have got progressively worse as the race approached, to finish at 155%.

To deal with each in turn...

One of my colleagues who is most knowledgeable on the subject suggested to me that, "I'm not sure that any of the other thousands of 'first four' permutations could have been worse for them". Brace yourself for plenty of 'it cost us millions' stories in the press tomorrow, but the reality is that those millions will be back. But I won't be bracing myself for anyone (in racing) recognising the sense (for racing) in managing risk perfectly like we do at Betfair, which delivers levy returns whatever the result.

As regards the SP, it's worth having a look at what SP has been at the National over the last 10 years. Courtesy of the same colleague, here are the numbers:

2000 - 138%

2001 - 142%

2002 - 143%

2003 - 143%

2004 - 133%

2005 - 139%

2006 - 147%

2007 - 152%

2008 - 146%

2009 - 146%

2010 - 155%

To put that into perspective, the winner returned 10/1 at SP today; and 18/1 at Betfair SP.

Now, there's an argument that says that Grand National Day is the one day that the bookies should have an over-round that represents daylight robbery to any value-seeking punter. The vast majority of their customers today are not just not value-seekers, but are not betting with any knowledge whatsoever of whether a horse should be 10/1 or 33/1. Equally, many of them are not likely to come back again until the Grand National is run next year. On that basis, you could argue that it makes sense to charge as much money as possible, safe in the knowledge that they're going to buy the product just this once.

The counter, though, was put succinctly in an e-mail by one of Betfair's very early customers, who suggested that maybe an idea for Racing for Change would be to look at how the biggest betting day in the calendar could become an opportunity to welcome new people into the sport, rather than "treating them as people who have strayed into the wrong part of town and deserve to be mugged".

I think it's a powerful argument.

There's no question - and this year proves it - that there is a trend for false gambles which ignores the broader market as captured by Betfair. Horses are shortened in price late in the day, and nothing is lengthened to compensate. The pricing experience is one which I don't think any other industry would get away with.

Does it matter? I think it does. You might argue that adding 55% to fair value would have gone some way to mitigate the disastrous result; but it seems more likely that someone who picked up £180 for a tenner will return and have another go, than someone who picked up £100.

Certainly, any customer who learns that he'd have got twice the price half an hour earlier, or in the morning, or on Betfair, or even on the Tote (which was paying £15) will feel short-changed, and a 'good customer experience' will become a mediocre one at best. So, given that we know that more regular punters tend to return to the bookies what they win, I would have thought that giving new customers a fair go in the hope (or expectation based on experience) that they can then be retained for lifetime value would be a more sensible business model.

But I suspect I'm in a minority confined to Betfair.