Good morning. The Irish Greyhound Board, IGB, is reporting an operating profit before interest, depreciation and taxation of €2.3 million for the 12 months to 31 December 2015. The comparable figure in 2014 was €700,000. The IGB also reduced its long-standing debt by €1.35 million in 2015 and has since reduced it by a further €700,000.
The generation of surplus allowed the board to increase race grants by 20% since the start of 2016. Average attendance per meeting in 2015 was up 4% on the prior period, average gate income increased by 3% and average tote spend per customer was up 2% on the previous year. The 2015 accounts show improvements under some metrics, but these do not disguise the difficulties the greyhound industry faces. That said, the industry in Ireland is worth defending. The economist, Jim Power, estimated the direct and indirect employment in the industry at approximately 10,000 staff in 2011. The IGB employs almost 800 full-time and part-time staff. The industry supplies the raw materials in the form of greyhounds to greyhound racing internationally. A total of 83% of greyhounds racing in the UK in 2016 were bred in Ireland.
The IGB's difficulties are not unique. The industry globally is facing many challenges, notably as a result of the migration of wagering from track to technology platforms which has impacted on live attendances at race meetings. With the closure of Wimbledon stadium recently, London, for example, now has no greyhound track, from a high of 33. In the United States, there are only ten tracks operating full time. In Australia, the industry is under huge pressure and, therefore, the notion that Ireland would somehow be unaffected by the reasons which have contributed to the nationwide decline is a nonsense. Ireland, per capita, still has the highest number of stadia in the world, which is a reflection of the strength of the industry. The number of stadia in the Republic, IGB and private, is 16. There are 24 stadia run by the Greyhound Board of Great Britain, GBGB, in the entire UK. The IGB's remit is to manage the industry against the background of current market realities and, critically, to deal with a crippling, systemic overhang of debt. That debt stood at €20.3 million at the end of 2016, compared with a turnover of €31 million, excluding Exchequer funding. It may also be of interest that the current board has reduced the debt by €2 million and is the first board to pay down debt.
All these difficulties to which I have referred were known to lndecon consultants when they were commissioned by the then Minister in 2014 to carry out what is regarded as the most comprehensive review of the industry ever undertaken. It is important to state that everyone in the industry - ourselves and critics of the board included - were extremely pleased that such a review would be undertaken. The difference between us at this point is that the board has accepted the Indecon conclusions and recommendations, which were also accepted by then Minister, and has sought to implement them. It is important to state also that lndecon also felt strongly that if the appropriate actions were taken, as laid out in its review, then the industry had a viable future. One of the key recommendations was that an asset disposal programme would be adopted to include the sale of Harold's Cross, which was then, and still is, the asset most likely to yield significant value. Notwithstanding the lndecon report and the support of Government for the recommendation, the decision to close Harold's Cross was something the board of the IGB agonised long and hard about. Harold's Cross was an iconic stadium of great importance to our Dublin colleagues who have a huge emotional attachment to it. We acknowledge that the closure is a blow to the greyhound fraternity in Dublin.
I assure the committee that we will bend over backwards to ensure that Harold's Cross racing finds a welcoming, respectful home in Shelbourne Park stadium. The decision to sell Harold's Cross is not solely predicated on its potential value to the IGB or its contribution to the resolution of the debt issue but is also based on the fact that it is two miles from Shelbourne Park, which is twice its size and operates for a limited period every week, as indeed does Harold's Cross. It does not make commercial sense. The effective closure of the IGB's national arena for the past ten weeks by those opposed to the closure of Harold's Cross Stadium is clearly not sustainable. In addition to the loss of €300,000 that has been incurred by the IGB, the disruption of racing has cost owners and trainers €250,000 in prize money. The IGB cannot haemorrhage money in this way and unless there is a resolution, and I have to make this clear, the end game is the cessation of all racing nationally. The easy option for the board is to kick the issue of debt further down the road and to pretend that it does not exist or that it can be magicked away. We were appointed to do a job and we will face up to our responsibilities, even if our decision to do so is unpopular. It is important also to understand that the debt issue is not some abstract problem or an accountancy issue. It is an issue that grievously inhibits the capacity of the board to invest in the industry, protect its national footprint, encourage new ownership and breeding, address issues around the industry demographic, reach out to the leisure market and exploit the opportunities of online wagering.
We want a vibrant and rejuvenated greyhound industry with the highest standards in animal welfare and integrity, that is celebrated as uniquely Irish, embraced by all, thereby securing its place as a major national sport, and has a place for all participants, including breeders, owners, professional trainers and those involved full-time and part-time. We want an industry that delivers a world-class racing product in a rejuvenated stadium network delivering that best visitor experience for leisure customers and racing fans while distributing racing across all technology platforms. We want to make Shelbourne Park a state-of-the-art stadium to rival others in the capital, such as the Aviva Stadium and Croke Park, and to allow it to operate as many nights as possible and attract new corporate and leisure audiences as well as having premium facilities for our owners, trainers and greyhounds. There is also a requirement to upgrade other stadia if we are serious about expecting those other than the diehard greyhound racing constituency to attend our events. We need to invest further in information technology to ensure we continue to exploit the opportunities the migration to online wagering and the constantly evolving technology platforms in all their forms present.
Prize money needs to be increased, as does ownership, especially through syndication. On welfare, we need to build on what we have been doing in recent years and ensure full traceability for dogs. By any objective yardstick, the IGB has made huge strides in the area of regulation and integrity in recent years and we wish to keep that momentum going. We want to develop a clear pathway into the industry for those who wish to participate, with a range of support options, including training and professional development. All these areas require capital for investment. We do not have access to it and are trading at the maximum of our banking limits. We can have access to capital by sticking with the decision to close Harold's Cross and to realise the value of the asset, pay down debt and reinvest in the industry.
As an organisation, are we doing as well as we possibly can? No. There are still operational and structural weaknesses we need to sort out, but we have made progress, and I am happy that we have considerable skills represented at board and executive level across finance and business, veterinary, regulation and law to ensure we continue the progress that has been made and perform better in future. The members of this delegation are more conscious than anyone of the backdrop to this appearance before the committee. There is no doubt we are at a critical stage in the life of the greyhound industry. Our ambition is to deliver a commercial, well-regulated greyhound racing and breeding industry, enabling the delivery of a customer-centred, highly exciting and value-led entertainment experience. That requires difficult decisions to be made now.