Will greyhound racing ever get back on track?

Damian MaddenFollowing the expose of blooding and other practices in greyhound racing last week Damian Madden looks at what the sport needs to do to regain public trust. 

As an animal lover, and somebody who has been to the dog track occasionally, I was abhorred when I saw the Four Corner’s footage earlier this week of greyhound trainers ‘blooding’ their dogs using live animals.

Watching the fallout in the days that followed I began to wonder if greyhound racing could recover from this catastrophic blow. Has its brand been damaged beyond repair?

What the people involved did was inexcusable, inhumane and indefensible. This post isn’t intended to excuse them or ‘make good’ what is truly a horrible crime. I’m focusing here on the overall brand – looking at its positioning before, during and after this revelation – because it offers valuable insights that other brands can learn from.


Greyhounds before a race. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Greyhound racing in Australia has long courted controversy with fresh claims of cruelty, over-breeding and other incidents never too far away. The sport’s very beginnings featured dogs chasing and trying to kill live animals.

Yet despite this it’s become big business and 12,000 people around the country depend on it for their livelihood. So calls for a total ban will probably fall on deaf ears and rightly so. However, it’s always had a branding problem and that’s coming to the fore right now as the industry faces its toughest challenge yet. This demonstrates the importance of not doing anything until you have your brand right.

Response to the Four Corners broadcast from within the industry has been cautious at best. Yes those directly implicated by the footage have been stood down, and task forces have been created, but you get the impression that there’s hesitation. If greyhound racing in this country is to recover, those within the sport itself need to get on the front foot.

This is basic crisis management and although I’m sure they’re not being completely inactive, they’re not doing enough in the public eye and it has been others associated with racing more generally (like Peter V’Landys) who have had to do it. Ultimately, convincing the public that things will be different from now on is vital if the industry is to regain acceptance.

The first obvious step in any brand-mending process is cleaning up what happened. Greyhound racing needs broad and easy to understand reform clearly communicated to the wider public through effective and engaging content. The sport’s image is rough and ready so it doesn’t have the polished corporate structure to make a case for the defence. Establishing this structure and sense of accountability will be crucial.

It’s also important that those in charge maintain focus on fixing things; they can’t just turn a blind eye (as some have suggested they have been doing) hope that this will blow over or question whether the footage was obtained legally because it doesn’t matter in terms of public perception.  They also cannot draw comparisons to events like the Fine Cotton ring-in scandal of the 1980s, which has generally now been accepted as a colourful chapter in horse racing’s folklore. This is very, very different. The public needs to have faith that greyhound racing’s controlling body can actually exert authority.

Once the live-baiting issue has been cleared up it should turn attention to another issue that has plagued the industry for years – dog cruelty.

Greyhound racing desperately needs to put together a proper corporate narrative; a brand story people can relate to. It doesn’t have one today and that has been painfully obvious during this scandal. A corporate narrative, the essence of your business in action, is drawn from the key elements that make your brand work – the vision, behaviour, themes and so on.

Having a strong narrative helps you handle whatever comes your way in a fashion that’s in keeping with the ideals that drew customers to your brand in the first place. This is how some brands emerge from difficult circumstances with their customer base intact and, what’s more, having given them a glimpse into how they handle situations with dignity and respect. These are admirable qualities in brands, just as they are in people.

Greyhound racing is sometimes positioned as family entertainment but, having stood on the concrete steps at Wentworth Park more than a few times, I can honestly say I’ve never seen a family enjoying the action. You’d need a great imagination to conjure up any sort of family ‘vibe’.

The corporate branding is all at sea, which is in keeping with how the live-baiting issue has been handled so far. For a recent example of how a strong corporate narrative can help in a crisis look at the horse-death controversy that marred last year’s Melbourne Cup. Horse racing has a much stronger narrative and dealt with the situation in a way that was in keeping with its brand. It may not be completely resolved, and animal rights groups still have questions, but in terms of public perception it was, by and large, handled.

This brings me onto my last point – rebranding. Greyhound racing needs to do it, badly. If the sport is going to recover and grow, rather than reverting back to the support of its ageing faithful, there’s some serious work ahead. Part of this will be showcasing a newfound transparency demanded by the public as to the welfare of the dogs and the complete stamping out of live-baiting.

For a long time greyhound racing has been viewed very poorly by the wider public but it doesn’t have to be that way. This is a business based around animals so their welfare should be at the centre of everything. Beyond that, I’d start shifting focus away from the track and work on improving the environment around it. Today’s crowd goes solely to gamble but giving people other reasons to be there, to enjoy a meal and a couple of drinks, would be a starting point.

There has to be a world more people want to be part of before you can stage any meaningful recovery. This is the only way to bring in new audiences and without those the sport’s days are numbered.

  • Damian Madden is group creative & social director at Spectrum Group

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