You cannot exaggerate the importance of free-to-air television coverage to horseracing. Racing on TV provides the route by which millions of people connect with this sport. It provides an access point and ensures a crucial public profile.
We are reminded of this as ITV is just weeks away from taking over racing’s terrestrial television coverage, with its exciting new team and no doubt plenty of new production embellishments.
Terrestrial TV audience figures for horseracing may have steadily declined in recent years but this is more a consequence of huge increases in the number of available TV channels and of the social media revolution rather than anything to do with a fall-off in the popularity of our sport.
Racing’s TV audiences are made up by many levels of viewers, some of them highly-committed enthusiasts and, at the other end of the spectrum, a casual in-and-out viewer who is happy to have racing chatter as a background to preparing the lunch.
But today’s casual viewer might become tomorrow’s committed fan. A person whose idea of having a bet might move from an annual small flutter on the Grand National to one who gets great pleasure out of a regular Saturday afternoon punt. That same person might then be persuaded to go racing and, who knows, become a racehorse owner.
Just as any racing event shown by the BBC would be expected to acquire a bigger audience than that of Channel 4, so Channel 4 figures would always out-perform the digital channels.
Racing’s imminent move back to ITV should therefore see a boost in audiences for the 41 major racedays ITV1 is due to cover from next year, though presumably a decline in the figures for those 59 meetings moving to ITV4, even though the latter continues to offer free-to-air coverage.
The biggest difference between now and when ITV last covered horseracing in 1985 is that advertising of betting products is allowed, but fears are growing that the government might soon try to prevent it.
Racing’s imminent move back to ITV should therefore see a boost in audiences for the 41 major racedays
Such a move would inevitably have repercussions for ITV. Betting operators provide most of the advertising and their forced absence from the screens would drive a coach and horses through the ITV racing business plan with many millions of pounds of advertising revenue being lost.
Even worse is the fact that any ban would presumably encompass sponsorship, thereby cutting across an expected £10 million sponsorship deal with William Hill.
Whatever unfolds now, the current contract is safe. But would ITV or any other TV company enter into a competitive bidding process for the rights to show racing if they were prevented from exploiting their main source of advertising revenue?
There is often a blurring of the line between governments taking their social responsibility seriously and acting as a ‘nanny state’, and one has to question how much potential harm there is in bookmaker advertising to the vast majority of people watching racing on television.
Certainly, it is a point the BHA would be putting across with force if they had to seek a dispensation for racing in the event of a ban being implemented.
It is, however, a salient thought that a potential ban on TV betting advertising does not figure that highly in the bookmakers’ list of concerns. Of course they would not want it to be imposed, but they have much greater concerns as to what the government plans to do about Fixed Odds Betting Terminals in their shops. Severe restrictions placed on this mode of gambling will cause many shops to close and with each closure racing loses another customer.
But this is not a time for pessimism. We must bask in the knowledge that racing will be covered by a major TV channel at least for the next four years.