Failed deal threatens Channel 4 coverage

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The green screens had been up around the Go Racing consortium for several days, but it was only in the early hours of yesterday morning that it was finally put out of its misery. Dawn had broken over Portman Square when the British Horseracing Board decided that it could not sanction the use of its vital pre-race data by the consortium, and a deal that was supposed to be worth £307m was suddenly worth precisely nothing at all.

You could describe the tale of the Go Racing contract as a sorry chapter in the history of the sport, were it not for the fact that, after almost three years of negotiations, and many thousands of wasted hours, chapter is far too small a word. It has been more of a Norse epic, a struggle for power in which few of the characters emerge with credit, although Go Racing itself, an alliance including Channel 4, BskyB and Arena Leisure, fits more into the role of a victim caught in the crossfire.

What it all came down to was the simple question: who runs racing? Most racing followers, or at any rate those who can be bothered to wonder about such things, tend to think that it is the BHB. But when 49 of Britain's racecourses, including all the major ones, agreed to sell their media rights to Go Racing for the next 10 years, they did so without any input from the BHB. When one sector of the industry starts to act with such complete independence of the rest, it cannot be long before people start to ask what, exactly, the BHB is for? Answers on a post card, please, to Peter Savill, Portman Square, W1.

The BHB was unamused. Nor did it help that the Jockey Club, which ceded power to the BHB in racing's Velvet Revolution a decade ago, seemed to be grabbing back influence via its control of Racecourse Holdings Trust, the body which owns many top tracks. But the BHB also held one important card. It owns the rights to racing's pre-race data ­ runners, riders, and so on ­ without which live pictures are meaningless.

The Go Racing deal, signed by the courses months ago, included the pre-race data, at a price to be negotiated at a later date. But the courses had effectively sold something they did not own, which is never a wise idea, particularly when the actual owner is as pugnacious as Peter Savill, the BHB chairman.

In recent weeks, some of racing's other interest groups, notably the owners and trainers, started to question what was in it for them. The answer, they felt, was not much. There was unease, too, about the length of the deal, 10 years being far too long in a rapidly changing media world, while Go Racing's plans to launch an off-shore betting operation, just when Customs & Excise had been persuaded to abolish betting duty to lure British bookies home, was insensitive, even inflammatory.

All were useful sticks to beat the deal. The final, insurmountable sticking point, according to the BHB, was that Go Racing wanted pre-race data rights for new platforms, such as the heralded 3G mobile phones, included in the contract. This the BHB would not concede.

The questions now are whether Channel 4 will maintain its commitment to terrestrial coverage, and whether the BHB, in unison ­ if such a thing is possible ­ with the courses, can find a better deal than the one it has just torpedoed.

"Our position is that we only see a future in racing if we are involved on a cross-platform basis," a spokesman for Channel 4 said yesterday. "We need to pay for programming and make a return. We invest over £10m a year in racing, and we certainly don't get that back on the current coverage. If there's no prospect of building new business out of racing coverage, a decision will have to be taken on whether the coverage as it stands is sustainable. That's not a threat, just the cold reality of being a broadcaster in a competitive media environment."

Peter Savill spoke yesterday of phone calls from "three substitute consortiums" who might replace Go Racing. Phone calls and money on the table are very different things, though, and there are few media groups with the reach, infrastructure and investment capital to match Channel 4 or BskyB.

"Interactive platforms don't appear from nowhere," the Channel 4 spokesman said, "and the fact is that when races are shown on terrestrial TV, betting turnover rises by 230 per cent. No one else could find space for the 105 days a year we produce. Peter Savill can talk all he likes about 3G phones, but there's no point in icing if there's no cake underneath."