Racing uses the whip

The Sport of Kings is uniting to drive a better deal on television rights. Dan Gledhill reports

The BBC's sport division has suffered a series of heavy blows in the past few months, most notably the desertion of Desmond Lynam to ITV and the loss of Test cricket coverage to Channel 4.

Indeed, it may be that the corporation has been too desensitised by this bruising to feel the effects of another sucker punch which was landed last week when news broke that 12 of Britain's top racecourses are in negotiations aimed at increasing the sport's revenue from television rights.

In fact, the development should come as no surprise. BBC executives have long admitted privately that horse racing, hamstrung by a Byzantine structure and internal jealousies, has traditionally sold itself on the cheap. With this new resolve, racing is now bidding to follow the example of other sports that have managed to multiply their revenue by holding broadcasters to ransom in a manner that would befit the Sport of Kings.

Not that anything is happening in a hurry. The talks have been going on for almost a year, according to David Hillyard. As managing director of the Racecourse Holdings Trust, which runs seven courses on behalf of the Jockey Club, Mr Hillyard has played a pivotal role in encouraging other fiefdoms of the turf to get together.

In total, 12 tracks have been involved: Aintree, Cheltenham, Epsom, Haydock, Kempton, Newmarket and Sandown, which the trust operates, plus Ascot, Doncaster, Goodwood, Newbury and York. The list comprises an unofficial Premier League of racecourses, which host all five Classic races plus most of the main flat and jump festival seasons.

"The main object is to see if we can't work together to create a more coherent and exciting racing product," says Mr Hillyard, a popular figure ideally suited to persuading the sport's competing interests that their strength lies in numbers.

Certainly, racecourses have done themselves no favours by negotiating individually with broadcasters. The BBC and Channel 4 have been able to tie up coverage for a miserly annual outlay of pounds 6m, which contrasts with the pounds 186m secured by the Premier League for football coverage.

While other sports have succeeded in multiplying their selling price during the 1990s, racing has been left in an unprofitable time warp (see the graph below).

It is said that Jonathan Martin, the former head of BBC sport, had conceded that racing's confused negotiating tactics put it at a severe disadvan- tage when it came face to face with broadcasters.

Nor is it the case that British horseracing is too wealthy to care. The sport has been struggling to find the sort of prize money needed to persuade owners to race their best horses here. Later this month, it will have to go cap in hand to the bookmakers for the annual levy negotiation, which will dictate the size of the contribution that the betting industry makes to racing. The omens are not good. By setting up offshore operations, bookmakers are threatening to put themselves beyond the reach of rules that oblige them to help fund racing through the levy.

But Douglas Erskine-Crumb, who runs Ascot, denies that the current moves are designed to reduce racing's reliance on the levy.

"We would be extremely concerned if we became less reliant on the levy," he says. "It is an essential part of the way racecourses provide prize money."

He is perhaps more concerned about recouping the pounds 2m that Ascot takes from its own coffers to help finance its prizes. But he accepts that racing cannot hope to command more television income unless it changes. "We believe that broadcasters would like to see a more coherent racing product," he says. "People regard the season as a series of disconnected events."

That could involve creating a championship series to sustain interest in the season. Race-goers are also likely to be treated to more evening and Sunday meetings. And the consortium of courses is keen to exploit the internet by setting up websites to provide more information for punters.

"We are aiming to provide better value for viewers and television companies, so we need to look at the product we have," says Mr Erskine-Crumb.

Quite how much these changes could be worth to the sport is uncertain. Mr Erskine-Crumb dismisses one estimate - that racing's TV rights could be worth at least pounds 25m a year - as "speculation". Elsewhere, there is concern that advertisers remain unimpressed by the kind of viewers that racing attracts.

Alex Fynn, a sports consultant, says: "The point about TV rights is that certain sports deliver certain audiences valuable to advertisers. Football, for example, attracts millions of young, free-spending males who are difficult to pin down elsewhere. The people who watch racing are just not very attractive to advertisers."

He is also sceptical about the format of race meetings, which drag on for several hours with only intermittent action, failing to sustain a significant audience.

The plan faces other problems, not least the need to unite racing's disparate interests. For a start, there is the question of the bookmakers, who have yet to be consulted. While they would welcome any reduction in their levy contribution that might ensue, any changes to the fixture list would require their approval.

And any move on to the internet by racecourses would also come in for close scrutiny, given the bookies' own plans for that medium.

The British Horse Racing Board is understood to welcome the consortium's moves but remains concerned about the effect on the 47 courses outside the consortium.

Mr Hillyard counters: "There is always a risk that initiatives like this can be seen to be divisive, but I am extremely concerned that this will not be the case. If we bring more value in, then everyone should be better off. We don't want the rich to get richer and the poor poorer."

Nevertheless, it is perhaps a sign of old jealousies dying hard that even after almost a year of discussions, the 12 courses involved have so far failed to produce anything in writing. Even now, those party to the talks are being careful to dampen expectations that the sport is about to tap a gold mine.

In part, this is due to a desire to remain onside with the BBC and Channel 4, whose contracts with particular courses do not run out until as late as 2001.

But the cautious stance also reflects the fact that this is not the first attempt to reform racing's arcane structure.

By getting together in the first place, the 12 courses may have cleared the first and biggest hurdle, but any plan to modernise racing still faces a struggle before it passes the finishing post.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Business Analyst - Financial Services - City, London

£50000 - £55000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Business Analyst - Financial Service...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: At SThree, we like to be differe...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Did you know? SThree is the o...

Recruitment Genius: Administrator - IFA Based

£22000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

How Etsy became a crafty little earner

The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

Don't fear the artichoke

Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
11 best men's socks

11 best men's socks

Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

Paul Scholes column

Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

Frank Warren's Ringside

Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

Khorasan is back in Syria

America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

On the campaign trail with Ukip

Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

Expect a rush on men's tights

Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

In the driving seat: Peter Kay

Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road