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.

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