Fan engagement in Horse Racing – fears that the bubble will be burst with Sky's raid on rights
Horse racing is one of the last remaining sports in the UK with consistent live coverage on a free to air station after ITV picked up the latest set of rights from Channel 4 until the end of 2020 in a deal worth approximately £30 million. With events ranging from the Cheltenham Festival to the Grand National to Royal Ascot, this package of rights owned and licensed by the Racecourse Media Group (RMG) remain lucrative but also staunchly associated to terrestrial television.
However, there are murmurings within the industry that even horse racing may be heading the way of a subscription service, with Sky planning a raid on these rights in the next tender. The major media conglomerate set out its intentions to expand its coverage of the sport by becoming a majority shareholder in the At The Races channel – a service solely dedicated to racing available on a Sky platform. Now it is looking to throw its hat in the ring for RMG's package of rights.
If the rumours are true, what does this mean for the horse racing industry? Horse racing is a sport sui generis. There is not the depth of regular supporters who week in week out frequent racetracks throughout the country, however, the swathes of punters that flock to the major festivals show that there is widespread interest in the sport. So the reach is definitely there, but the engagement is very much still a work in progress. That is not to say broadcasters are not trying to improve it. ITV's current product puts the emphasis on fan engagement with its "social media zone". In the latest Grand National shows, ITV encouraged fans to send in charades of the 40-strong Grand National field. Some may call this cheesy, but undoubtedly it will appeal to younger viewers. RMG should take note of such efforts if they want to take the sport to the next level. Suddenly these younger supporters may start watching less glamorous cards at Uttoxeter or Kelso, and all of a sudden they are full time racing fans that consider partaking in the sport at amateur level. Surely the likes of the BHA would love to see more participation in a sport currently monopolised by the elite?
The benefits of RMG licensing its package to Sky are evident, not least the vastly higher bids that Sky would be prepared to offer for the rights. But would this potentially quash the efforts that the likes of ITV are putting in to promote engagement within the sport? Clearly more money could be put into the amateur echelons of horse racing with increased rights fees, but I am not sure that would lead to more participation. The undoubtedly higher audience figures that ITV would bring in over Sky for the likes of the Cheltenham Festival coupled with their innovative social media activations are, in this author's opinion, more likely to increase promotion in the sport.
Despite the preceding plea, let's assume that Sky win the next set of rights – what mechanisms could RMG include in its media rights contract to make the sport available to a wider reach of fans, and engage at the same time? First, they could restrict the licence to be non-exclusive in respect of certain events such as Royal Ascot to enable the rights holder to sell a smaller package to a free-to-air broadcaster. Alternatively, RMG could become a content provider itself and transmit the content on their own service via social media pages. Clearly this would dilute Sky's rights but would ensure it did not warehouse all the big meetings. Further RMG should ensure that it retains all ancillary rights in respect of any broadcast. This would enable RMG to offer activations to sponsors to promote and disseminate footage from around the racecourse to their social media followers showing that there are other aspects to racing (e.g. fashion). Finally RMG could consider retaining lengthy clipping rights from the immediate conclusion of the race, again to promote via their or their partners' social media accounts.
So my message to the racing industry – be creative with how rights are sold. Please do not be sucked in by Sky's cheque and think about the implications. The free-to-air broadcasters have really cottoned on to the importance of engagement, and coupled with self-promotion by the rights holders, there is a younger generation of racing fans that may share the same passion as the most popular sports in the country.