In the second of a two-part feature, Chris Pitt talks with Dominic Ford about his roles as Bags chairman and vice chairman of the ABB Council.
DOMINIC FORD IS a busy man, juggling his roles as chairman of Bags and ABB Council vice chairman with his position as CEO of London-based bookmaker Roar! Betting. The previous issue of BOS Magazine chronicled his introduction to the industry and the development of the Roar! chain. Time now to discuss his subsequent involvements with Bags and the ABB.
The successful launch of streaming on October 14 means that every Bags race can now be viewed via laptop or mobile device.
Punters can watch Bags action live on bookmakers’ websites. It’s a pay-per-view-per-race basis by way of a bet, with profits going to the greyhound racing industry. The pictures are streamed via SIS and Sport Mediastream on At The Races’ platform, with Bags aiming to make up to 30,000 races available to view in 2016. Online bookmakers pay for the right to offer the service.
CP: Are you hopeful that streaming will take the sport to a wider betting audience?
DF: There is research that says that two-thirds of greyhound bets are struck by people under the age of 40. That statistic may come as a surprise to some people in our industry and you don’t need to be that clever to have a true understanding where people under the age of 40 are placing the majority of their bets. Some LBO operators see this as a threat to what has up to now been an exclusively LBO product. However, from the greyhound industry point of view it’s going to increase the level of interest across a wider demographic profile and that can only be beneficial.
CP: The fifth Bags/SIS Track Championship, which began at Romford on September 10, has a new format this year, with the highest number of tracks, including three new Bags tracks, being involved. Has this served to make it a more interesting competition?
DF: Yes, it has. We’ve got 20 tracks this year, formed into various regional groups. We’ve slightly condensed the programme so that we’re able to increase our per race prize-money by 50 per cent.
We have refined it based on feedback from previous years. Some of the groupings have led to slightly more travelling for some tracks this year but we think it’s the best one we’ve put together. It’s been fantastic with high levels of competition.
CP: Last year’s Sky-covered finals attracted an audience of 120,000 viewers, and with this year’s finals being on December 23 and not having to compete with horseracing, there is presumably no reason to think that that figure will slip?
DF: We will again be on in the afternoon. We will have the ‘shop window’ to ourselves; there’ll be no competition from horseracing, and it gives a fantastic finale for the calendar year for the greyhound racing public.
CP: While it is indeed a shop window for the sport, its costs – those of SIS, who provide the pictures and shows to Sky – are funded by Bags. What is the future of the arrangement with Sky Sports?
DF: We’ve just agreed to renew it for next year. We believe it helps promote ownership, which is fundamental in terms of keeping a high level of greyhound runners in training. Clearly it’s a very important shop window for our customers – in many ways even more important now that there are more channels on which to bet on Bags.
SIS put together a very competitive production deal for us to save as much cost for everyone as possible and we’re very grateful for that. SIS is the only distributor for Bags products in the UK and as such they’re a fundamental supplier of ours.
CP: When taking over from Tom Kelly – who is now chairman of GBGB – as Bags chairman on January 1, you commented that Bags racing was something that helped underpin both the greyhound and betting industries and you saw Bags’ role as “to maintain and, if possible, develop it further.” Streaming has been a great start, but how does Bags go about doing that?
DF: What Bags has to do is ensure that we maximise all the revenue opportunities. Our main focus historically has been on the UK LBO market. That will remain as is, but we will investigate the new opportunities that there are in the world.
We’ve appointed Phil Adams as our chief executive. He is fundamental to our strategy in that he’s had a long career in maximising horse racing media rights around the world and I think there’s an opportunity to do that for the Bags rights. We’ve talked about the LBO market and the new digital opportunities we are beginning to exploit through streaming. That is currently only to UK-based operators. We’re looking to extend it to overseas betting operators and we’ll be doing that in partnership with SIS.
I believe there are opportunities to maximise the income that we get from all the other territories in the world. We do some of this already through our partnership with SIS but there are under-exploited markets out there and that’s part of our task for the next two years.
(Subsequent to this interview Bags and SIS have launched a greyhound streaming service for international customers, with SIS again providing pictures and associated data and making them available to international bookmakers via the SIS Stream streaming platform.)
CP: You also stated that Bags would seek to maintain and develop worldwide interest for the benefit of all. Greyhound racing seems to be popular in countries such as Spain and in Eastern Europe, but how does Bags/greyhound racing develop this further?
DF: The wonderful thing about greyhound racing is that it’s very accessible. We always have the same number of runners, trap one always runs in the same colour; it makes it a very much more marketable product compared to the more esoteric horseracing product. We want to exploit that and make sure the track owners, the trainers, the dog owners in the UK benefit from that.
CP: With regard to the Ladbrokes/Coral merger, what issues might this create? Between them they already own Crayford, Hove, Monmore and Romford, representing just under 29 per cent of the total Bags races on the current schedule. Might the new powerhouse declare UDI and seek to buy additional tracks? How do you see that going?
DF: Both Coral and Ladbrokes are founding members of Bags; they’ve been subscribers since day one and a combined Coral and Ladbrokes would be just as important to Bags as they are now. In terms of how to run a greyhound track, both companies set a very high benchmark. By merging, those standards won’t get lower – if anything there’ll be some healthy internal competition and standards will be even higher. I think having strong Coral- and Ladbroke-owned tracks is beneficial to everyone.
CP: You observed when taking over as Bags chairman, “we’ve all seen stats about declining numbers of greyhounds and trainers, and we will want to help improve those.” What optimism is there for you that that aim can be achieved and the decline arrested?
DF: We have to focus on the very narrow remit of Bags, and that is to generate as much income as possible through the sale of media rights for the benefit of the tracks, and if we do a good job it means there will be more money available in that area. We will concentrate on doing a good job where we are and try and hand over as big an amount of money to the tracks as possible.
CP: You are also vice chairman of the ABB Council. What precisely does that role entail?
DF: I’m one of six independent bookmakers who are members of the ABB Council. We meet at least nine times a year to set policy plus there are other specific commitments that arise out of those policy objectives. My job is to ensure that the agreed policies are implemented in a proportional manner with respect to the independent and smaller operators.
What’s changed now compared to 10 or 15 years ago is that we are a much more politicised industry. We are more heavily regulated since the Gambling Commission was introduced in 2007. Additionally, we are being assailed by so many more political interest groups who are spreading unfounded and untrue statements about our industry.
The independent bookmakers are businessmen and entrepreneurs. We now have to become experts in public affairs and regulation. The big operators have responded by employing public affairs directors to cope with this. The small operators cannot afford to do this; we have to navigate through this on our own. As vice chairman of the ABB I have to lead the fight on our behalf in making sure that the independent voice has the same level of public affairs expertise and is heard within the ABB. The constitution of the ABB allows that to happen because the makeup of the council is balanced between the larger and smaller operators.