Courses keep TV bidders waiting

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The Independent Online

An extraordinary general meeting of Britain's 59 racecourses at Haydock Park, which had been expected to decide the winner in the £400m contest for the tracks' media rights, broke up without a final agreement yesterday evening despite many hours of discussion. The courses said they needed a further seven days to consider the two rivals bids before them, prompting ill-disguised irritation from some of the parties involved.

An extraordinary general meeting of Britain's 59 racecourses at Haydock Park, which had been expected to decide the winner in the £400m contest for the tracks' media rights, broke up without a final agreement yesterday evening despite many hours of discussion. The courses said they needed a further seven days to consider the two rivals bids before them, prompting ill-disguised irritation from some of the parties involved.

The Racecourse Association said in a statement last night that the tracks had concluded that "as the bids stand, they each had a level of uncertainty that prevented a final conclusion being reached at the meeting. With both bids available for acceptance until 30 November, discussions will continue with each bidder within the next week and allowing racecourses to make a final decision on or just before 30 November 30."

Angus Crichton-Miller, the RCA chairman, said that while it was "disappointing that the winner did not emerge, the racecourses were sensible in allowing a few days to clear the air on certain issues." He added that he was confident that the winner will be decided next week, and that "whichever party it is, we will be creating an exciting way forward with them that will be highly beneficial to British racing."

The sums involved in the proposed deals are immense, and the amount of time the tracks seem to want to reach a decision are almost as large. As a result, the frustration of the bidders is growing, as a series of deadlines for a final resolution have arrived and passed. "Why they want another week, I don't know," a party to one of the groups said yesterday. "Everyone's getting to the point where they're starting to wonder whether it's worth it."

The two proposals put to the tracks yesterday came from the media group Carlton Communications, and Go Racing, a syndicate which includes Channel 4, BSkyB and Arena Leisure, which owns a number of courses including Lingfield and Southwell. Both have offered £400m for the courses' media rights for the next 10 years, although there are minor differences between the two in terms of how the total value is comprised. Go Racing has guaranteed £320m over the course of the contract, with an additional £80m earmarked for marketing, while Carlton's figures are £350m and £50m respectively.

The £400m total represents an increase of almost 400 per cent on the tracks' annual income from their rights. The potential value of each bid could prove to be far higher, however, since both sides are looking to exploit the possibilities of interactive television betting which the digital revolution should bring in the near future. The courses would receive a share of betting turnover, which could prove to be worth many millions more. Go Racing has claimed that its package could be worth more than £750m in total, while Carlton has estimated that it could pay as much as £860 million over the 10-year period.

A racing follower without access to digital or satellite television would notice few major differences to terrestrial racing coverage whichever side clinched the deal. Most major races, with the possible exception of the Derby, would remain where they are at present, although there could be increased coverage from some smaller tracks. Go Racing has promised 4,000 hours of live racing each year on a dedicated digital channel, and a lunchtime version of the popular Morning Line programme on Channel 4 each day. Carlton, meanwhile, plans dedicated racing channels of its own, and is discussing the possibility of an ITV Championship, to be run over as many as 20 weekends during the year.

It is the digital coverage, however, and the possibility of opening up British racing to the global gambling market, which is the real prize at stake. Punters would be able to place bets, probably with their choice of a fixed-odds bookmaker or a pari-mutuel, at the press of a button on their remote control. This could, in theory, take the betting turnover on British racing to stratospheric levels, with the sport in general, and the courses in particular, taking a turn from every punt.

Clearly, this is a decision which the courses want to get right, but any further dithering is unlikely to endear them to either side. The lack of agreement on the media rights deal yesterday also meant that there was little time to discuss the BHB's plans for the future funding of racing, in which the sale of media rights are a vital component. Neither the rival suitors for the rights, nor the BHB, will be impressed if the dithering continue for much longer.

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