Dec 17, 2014

A Friendly Game Of Sport?

Increasingly, professional sporting bodies are agonising over the size of crowds. After over a decade of chasing the money associated with television rights, attention has returned to a simpler popularity measurement. This has led to commentators waxing lyrical about the relative merits of watching a particular sport on television as opposed to live. It has also meant a great deal of analysis about the “spectator experience”. But, as is their wont, most associated with a sport tend to focus more on the merits of their particular game and less on the social aspect of sport.

A batsman cutting a ball for the boundary

During the 1970s and 80s, cricket was enormously popular. World Series Cricket became a phenomenon thanks to the new and exciting limited-over version. Much is made of the brand of cricket being played, but little is said about the social circumstances of the time.

For those who were fortunate to own a coloured television, screens were small, reception was poor in areas, and the broadcast offered little extra for the viewer. It was relatively inexpensive to attend games and punters were allowed to bring their own food and drink. This made for a cheap, enjoyable and social afternoon and evening at a game of cricket.

Fast-forward 30 years and the social circumstances have changed dramatically. Televisions are relatively cheap and the quality of the image and sound has improved astronomically. Similarly, the broadcast contains numerous facts, replays, analysis that could overwhelm an occasional viewer.

 A cricketer resplendently stands at the non-striker's end

Stadia the country over have become more draconian in their enforcement of regulations and restrictions. It is almost as though the sport-going public should feel privileged to be allowed in to watch a game of cricket live.

Put simply, it is much more enjoyable to pack a picnic and an esky and go to a friend’s house. You can watch the game in high definition on television and not have to put up with overly officious security at the few stadia allowed to host international cricket games in Australia. Consequently, it is increasingly the Australian way to host a BBQ in the backyard in summer with the cricket on a big screen rather than attend the game.

What is true of our summer sport is not so true of our winter sport. The average crowd at the footy in 1987 was just over 21,000. In 2010 this number had grown to 38,423. No doubt AFL honchos would conclude that their “product” is superior to cricket’s. But while it is enjoyable to sit on a grassed hill in summer and watch sport, watching footy in the cold, wet mud of winter is less so. The dramatic improvements in facilities for fans benefited the winter game in a way it did not for cricket.

The crowd looks on at the MCG in a game between the Richmond Tigers and the Sydney Swans

In more recent years, the AFL has been shedding fans at games. The 2012-14 average crowds were as low as they have been for over 10 years leaving administrators with similar concerns to cricket’s. While the specifics are slightly different, the fundamental reason could be the same – the experience of attending live has become poorer than watching on television.

The homogeneity of stadia and teams makes attending a game of AFL the same Australia wide. It matters little who is playing or where, the live experience is the same. The experience is becoming boring. This is increasingly true when factoring in the games against meaningless franchises for which we have no passion. At least we can press mute when advertising comes on the television. And we can switch off or go chat to someone in a pub if the game becomes boring.

Perhaps the last straw for fans was the increasing “noise” at AFL games. For unfathomable reasons, every break in play is no longer a chance to chat to a friend. On-ground announcers, advertising, “popular” music, betting updates and similar absurdities bombard the casual fan making conversation almost impossible. So the fan is left with a choice – run the gauntlet of the homogenous stadium with punch-in-the-face advertising or sit at a friend’s house with some nice food and refreshments and watch the game in high definition?

The crowd looks on in the Murray Football League Grand Final between Moama and Mulwala

One sport that seems somewhat immune from the worries about attendances is horse racing. The sport is so reliant on gambling that crowds matter little. As long as more liberalised gambling opportunities increase profits, the VRC will pay little heed to crowds.

Even when large crowds do attend the races, people are not there for the sport. The large crowds at Flemington and Caulfield go for the social occasion, to put on their best attire and consume with friends. The horses add but a distraction. Nevertheless, crowds are falling at the races too. Since reaching nearly 130,000 in 2006, crowds at Flemington’s most popular carnival day, Victoria Derby, have fallen. This year, a shade over 90,000 attended. A dramatic drop.

Watching the horses race at Dunkeld can be a wonderful experience. Mt Sturgeon provides a stunning backdrop to the gorgeous racecourse. Fewer than 15 years ago it was possible to turn up to the Cup in early November with a picnic rug, food and refreshments. As it became increasingly popular, authorities became more draconian. Now people are carefully shuttled into class and price defined areas. There is little room left for a picnic. BYO is a thing of the past. Security is a constant. Prices have risen. Perhaps this quiet western district town provides a neat analogy for the events at racecourses in Victoria’s capital. Little wonder crowds are falling.

The horses are but a distraction for the crowds at Flemington Racecourse

There are good reasons for limiting the amount of booze people can drink at sporting events. Advocating a return to the lawless days at the cricket when play was regularly interrupted by drunken fools is not the point. Similarly, a return to the wet and wind of VFL Park in Waverley is clearly not desirable. But somewhere there is a happy medium. There must be a way in which punters are allowed to attend and be social while still enjoying the live sport. Administrators would be wise to find this happy medium before they play soul-less games at life-less concrete stadia as is occurring in the Sheffield Shield and at GWS Giants games.

It seems a lifetime ago, but just over 10 years ago I attended three sporting games. The first was a Sheffield Shield game between Victoria and New South Wales. The game was at Punt Road Oval and, with no Australian team playing, contained Steve and Mark Waugh, Glen McGrath, Shane Warne and Paul Reiffel. I paid a modest entry fee befitting my student status and sat on the hill with some friends chatting and watching the game. One Sunday, I saw a World XI take on Victoria at the Junction Oval. Entry was free and we stood on the outer side recalling our weekend’s activities. A friend organised a ticket to watch St Kilda and Fremantle at Princes Park. We sat where we wanted and discussed our sore bodies from our activities on the field the day prior. The three have much in common – they were convenient, low-key, and cheap. But what made them enjoyable and memorable is that I sat watching a game of high-level sport while chatting with friends.

Nov 5, 2014

Horses Carrying Much More Than A Jockey

Two horses died following the running of the 2014 Melbourne Cup. The first to perish did so dramatically. Admire Rakti began the race as favourite following its triumph in the Caulfield Cup. Less than 30 minutes later it lay dead in its stall. The Japanese horse appeared to be fine going into the final straight but then faded to finish last, walking past the finishing post. Initial reports have suggested the horse suffered a heart attack. The second to die, Araldo, suffered a regrettable misfortune. Spooked by a white flag waved too close to its nose while returning to the mounting yard, the horse reared up and hit a fence. The seventh-placed horse had to be euthanised as the break to the pastern was deemed irreparable.

Predictably hysteria ensued. There were those that advocate an end to all horse racing. But equally there were those that trotted out the naive and tired line that racehorses live an idyllic existence, free to gambol in lush green fields and pampered by their loving owners. Both points of view ignore the harsh realities of the racing industry and its role in modern life.

Mr Majestic sprints to the line through the mist

Initially I was pleased that Admire Rakti did not perform as expected. Although I had included him in a couple of my bets, my collects were far more lucrative if the favourite didn’t finish in the top three. As I happily calculated my winnings, I gradually become more interested in the horse that finished last as it became clear that he would be the big story of the day. I must admit to a macabre engrossment as I felt the horse’s death bring into focus the intimate details of horse racing. Enough with the froth and bubble of the fashions on the field and the bottles of champagne, take a look at what is happening in the real world.

There is an implicit hypocrisy practiced by those, including myself, who expect and want a horse to win yet prefer not to see the animal injured or suffering. How much is too much? We want the horse and the jockey to take risks, to muscle for position. But we don’t want the jockey to take too many risks lest they become another fatality. We want the horse to be ridden hard in the home straight. But not too hard, and with not too many strikes of the whip. After all, we have the best interests of the horse and the jockey at heart.

But the degree to which we want the horse and the jockey to suffer and take risks is an extremely grey area. It becomes greyer still when our level of investment, both emotionally and financially, changes. Had I gambled more than my usual $20-$30, I might have been more willing to see the horse suffer for the win. If I had invested a large proportion of my year into importing a horse from Japan and preparing it to win the Melbourne Cup, perhaps I would like to see my jockey take a few more risks. It is very difficult to remove emotion and say it is ok to whip a horse with a forehand motion five times during the race (excluding the final 100m), but the horse will be suffering too much if you do it six times.

The horses approach the string to start the race at the Kiwanis Charity Cup Race Meeting, Port Vila, Vanuatu

What is seen during a race is but a heartbeat in the life of the horse. A great many people devote a great many hours in stables the world over so that horses are prepared for races of all different stature. Largely, the race-going public has very little idea as to what occurs during preparation. In the more successful stables, methods are a closely-guarded secret lest competitors get an advantage. It is pertinent that Racing Victoria employ veterinarians. A veterinarian’s job is to inspect stables and perform out-of-competition blood and urine testing. On race day they complete pre- and post-race checks and tests. Implicitly, Racing Victoria are saying that not all trainers can be trusted with the welfare of their horses. If the lives of the racehorses were as idyllic as we are told, veterinarians would be largely redundant.

This point about a hidden world can be made another way. A continuing defence of a high-profile drug cheat was that the health risks of using PEDs was too great and after surviving cancer it would be stupid to take the risk. But he did. And he is a human. Horses are also given medications. Where would we, the race-going and betting public, draw the line between appropriate medicating and cheating? Where would Racing Victoria draw the line? Where would a veterinarian? Where would a trainer with his livelihood on the line? In 2003 six elite cyclists aged between 16 and 35 died of heart attacks. How many fit, young racehorses are dying of heart attacks?

Horses head off down the back straight at Numara Eliya races

Banning horse racing is patently absurd. It is akin to public transport advocates calling on cars to be banned. What would we do with all of the horses/cars? How would we compensate and transition the trainers/mechanics into a horse/car free society? What would happen with the existing economies? How would we control a black market in racing/driving? The task is so large as to be impossible. We will continue to drive cars and race horses for the foreseeable future.

A ban on racing would also unfairly impact a great many owners, trainers, jockeys, farriers, and veterinarians who genuinely love animals, are concerned about the welfare of horses and treat horses impeccably. While I am sure that not all racehorses live a bucolic existence, I am also sure that a large equine number do. Removing the ability to raise money from racing would undoubtedly have a negative impact on the welfare of numerous horses. Quite correctly, a number of people have pointed out the inability of animal welfare activists to provide for the welfare of horses should racing no longer exist.

In fairness, the RSPCA, Animals Australia and the Coalition For The Protection Of Racehorses do not call for a blanket ban on horse racing. Assuredly some of their members do, but the organisations draw attention to some of the lesser-known facts of horse racing. They also call for a ban on jumps racing and a ban on whips. The methods that they use are sometimes confronting. I have no doubt that they would prefer an animal uprising à la Dana Lyons’ classic Cows With Guns, but until animals can advocate for themselves these organisations will see it as their duty to publish shocking billboards.

The crowd looks on at the Kiwanis Charity Cup Race Meeting, Port Vila, Vanuatu

The solutions to the complex problems arising in horse racing are not clear. The perfect storm created by economics, speciesism, fatuousness, greed and vice are but a microcosm of modern life. Perhaps if we were able to solve problems in racing we would be able to create utopia. There are two things I could suggest to improve on our dystopian world. The first is with ever-greater money should come ever-more scrutiny from both the media and officialdom. The second? Ignore the D-grade celebrities, marketing marquees and sundry veneer, they only serve to obscure a world we may not be proud of.

Oct 16, 2014

A Toothless Tiger In Alice Springs

Tiger Airways suddenly stopped flying to Alice Springs on July 22. Tigerair Australia CEO Rob Sharp insinuated that the decision was due to a lack of demand.

“The commercial reality is we are a volume business and to build a sustainable business in the Australian domestic market we need to see a sustainable level of demand for our services,” Sharp said in a media release on May 2.

Sharp’s comment significantly simplifies the economics of the decision and blames the consumer for not purchasing Tiger’s product. But this over-simplification allows Sharp and Tiger Airways to painlessly exit Central Australia while leaving residents short-changed.

The beach at Ormiston Gorge, West MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory

Tourism NT spent about $700,000 promoting Tiger’s services to Alice Springs. Tiger Airways negotiated with Alice Springs Airport and the Northern Territory Government to ensure a collaborative approach prior to flights taking off in April 2013. Tiger Airways was eager to use the opportunity for marketing when it announced services from both Sydney and Melbourne would occur four times each week. Despite the significant use of public resources and the marketing benefits to Tiger Airways, the good news barely lasted a year.

Put simply, a review of Tiger’s network concluded that the plane and staff being used to fly to Alice Springs could make more money on a different route. The decision to no longer fly to Alice Springs was not because the route is unviable, but because there is more money to be made elsewhere. It is potentially more lucrative for Tiger Airways to focus resources on taking a greater percentage of a busy route, for example Sydney-Melbourne, than a stable route into Alice Springs.

Sharp explains this in terms of growth.

“We remain focused on building a sustainable platform for growth, which includes measured growth in line with consumer demand,” Sharp said.

A full plane flying into Alice Springs four times per week has no ability to “grow”. But increasing a percentage of market share between Sydney and Melbourne allows for the potential perpetual growth shareholders and boards so desire.

A dingo on the drive into Ormiston Gorge, West MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory

Since Tiger Airways stopped flights to Alice Springs, accommodation occupancy rates have plummeted. After being in business for over 10 years, backpacker hostel Annie’s Place closed after battling to fill their rooms. Part-owner Janice Knappstein highlighted Tiger’s decision as a huge factor.

“We went down to about 25-30% occupancy rate,” Knappstein told ABC Local Radio.

General Manager of Tourism Central Australia Jaclyn Thorne said similar problems were occurring across Alice Springs.

“Everybody is having a challenging season, they’re around the 40%, 50% occupancy at the moment and that’s been in the last month or so but certainly before then they were having some good occupancy rates up to 80%, 90%,” said Thorne to the ABC.

But it is not just Tiger Airways’ departure that is creating problems for Alice Springs’ tourism industry. Decisions made by Qantas and its low-cost subsidiary Jetstar are also having an impact.

Qantas now has a monopoly on flights to Alice Springs from all major Australian cities. With no competition there is little price pressure. Rather than let Jetstar create competition on the Alice Springs route, Qantas allowed their subsidiary to serve Uluru with its low-cost flights in direct competition with rival Virgin Australia.

From June 29, Jetstar began flights direct from Melbourne to Uluru return four times each week. They also increased the number of flights from Sydney to Uluru return to four times each week. Less then one month later, Tiger ceased their four weekly return flights from each city to Alice Springs.

Although Uluru and Alice Springs are 468km apart, the decision by Jetstar immediately had an impact on tourists flying with Tiger to Alice Springs. But it had little impact on the Qantas services to Alice Springs, and ultimately strengthened Qantas’ monopoly.

Cooling off at Ellery Creek Big Hole, MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory

Uluru was recently announced as the most expensive place to stay in Australia. In a survey of hotels worldwide, it was also announced as one of the most expensive places to stay in the world. The resort at nearby Yulara has a monopoly on all layers of accommodation, from camping through to luxurious. The resort is owned by the Indigenous Land Corporation and managed by Voyages Hotels & Resorts.

The remoteness of the resort make it an expensive operation to run. Voyages must, of course, charge accordingly. The Indigenous Land Corporation have little incentive to risk degrading the World Heritage Listed region by opening up more land for development. Thus, the monopoly and resultant expense are likely to remain.

In the same survey, Alice Springs was named the cheapest place for hotel accommodation in the country. Alice Springs is as remote from Australia’s major cities as Uluru. With numerous types of accommodation to choose from, there is no hotel monopoly in Alice Springs.

Mt Gillen's escarpment overlooks the town of Alice Springs, Northern Territory

There is a great deal more to Central Australia than one giant sandstone monolith. While Kata-Tjuta is near to Uluru, to travel solely to these incredible sights significantly diminishes the Centralian experience. Further, these icons of the Red Centre can only remain affordable for tourists when serviced by a vibrant Alice Springs and Central Australian community. By flying in and out of Uluru and not exploring beyond its environs, tourists contribute to a decline in other Centralian locales. In turn, this impacts on the future affordability and availability of Uluru.

But, for their part, airlines “servicing” the region need to look beyond their petty competitions. Qantas, Virgin, Jetstar and Tiger need to temper their knee-jerk reactions to each other’s short-term decisions. There must be a greater understanding that the viability of flying to Central Australia depends on a multitude of inter-related factors. An airline’s business does not operate in isolation. Nobody will fly the routes at all if it becomes too expensive to stay in a hotel when there. A renewed focus on providing a service to the community is vital for tourists, residents, and businesses alike.