As the positive mood music of the past few months has been turned down with the spread of a new variant, it is hard to be completely confident about liberation day, June 21. However, as a result of the current careful lifting of restrictions and the promising vaccination programme, it feels like we are on the right path towards a return to normality.
The team at the ROA have been working tirelessly to ensure that, as people get back, the owner experience is front of mind and racing repays the loyalty owners have shown throughout the pandemic. It is fantastic to see spectators on track, owners in the paddock and full hospitality offerings opening up at racecourses.
We are also seeing a bounce back in terms of horses in training; the numbers haven’t been higher since 2018. The ROA has had the highest number of new members for four consecutive months and racecourses can boost their recovery with people finally allowed through the gates. We must ensure that we capture this positive mindset and carry it forward.
I said last month that Covid and the recovery was posing some interesting questions for racing and how we will need to work together in future to protect and grow the sport. One of the areas where that has come into sharp focus is around the structure of racing’s finances.
Since the start of the pandemic, there have been a lot of claims made about the impact of betting shop closures, the changing nature of betting and how that affects the sport’s revenues. It was a widely held belief that betting revenues would reduce. However, it looks as if the growth in online betting has compensated in part for the temporary closure of shops.
Meanwhile, the participants have seen what we race for reduce significantly and endured the miserable experiences of racing behind closed doors, with limited hospitality and minimal access to trainers and jockeys. It is safe to say the raceday experience has suffered as much as the prize-money.
“We are seeing a bounce back in terms of horses in training; the numbers are at their highest since 2018”
Reduced prize-money levels have been funded by the Levy Board and owners themselves, with the racecourses’ executive contributions greatly reduced. Obviously, some businesses have been very badly impacted on their main revenue lines, but it is naïve to believe that all is doom and gloom when betting-based revenues have obviously fared well and significant costs were mitigated in part by the various measures available.
The levy estimate for 2020/2021 is remarkably high: £80 million, despite a total shutdown for two months and limited betting shop openings throughout the second half of the year. It is reasonable to conclude from this that the media rights payments have also performed at pre-pandemic levels and for those courses which have deals that benefit more from online betting than from the shop-based retail market, they have probably had a bumper return in 2020.
As racecourses have different business models, with some impacted by one particular issue more than others, it should not mean that they all should take the position of the worst hit.
In the BGC report that detailed over £350m being contributed by bookmakers to the sport every year, it is easier to start seeing all the revenue streams as one and ask whether it is actually supporting racing as a product. Bookmakers themselves have posed the question of where their investment goes. Bookmakers are paying for their racing product and they can, and probably will, pay more. However, racing has to be innovative and work together to make the most of this revenue.
Setting racing a target of £450m and beyond if we can improve the product, there are a few basic changes to seriously consider. These include changing the type of races we run and when we run them; avoiding clashes with other major sporting events; sharing data and improving media output; constructing a proper workable racing data bank; creating greater transparency around finances; and, of course, improving prize-money levels and incentivising participants.
It is relatively simple: improve the product, grow revenues and share the money in a way that benefits everyone. Racing is on the road to recovery but we need to use the time wisely to lay the foundations for a better, bigger and fairer sport in the future.