If you have not been following the racing news closely you might suspect that the imminent changes to how we view our sport on television amount to little more than an exercise in rebranding. Think again.
They will not be mere name changes when, exactly two years on from the revolution that took terrestrial coverage from Channel 4 to ITV, Racing UK becomes Racing TV and At The Races will begin operating as Sky Sports Racing.
Far from it. These are new entities, with different content and tone.
Racing TV’s acquisition of the exclusive rights to show racing from all of Ireland’s 26 courses, and for the first time Chelmsford, was a massive coup in itself, albeit a blow to those used to enjoying it as part of their basic Sky subscription.
The world of media rights is a complex one and it is constantly evolving
What’s more, the acquisition has come with an impressive list of new recruits, headed by Gary O’Brien, the so-called ‘voice of Irish racing’, as well as advances in the way we watch racing which RMG Chief Executive Richard FitzGerald likens to “a Netflix-style approach”.
Over on the other channel, there can be no disguising the hole that losing the Irish content leaves, yet it has not all been one-way traffic and the mood at a media launch just three days after that of their rival was every bit as positive, with At The Races boss Matthew Imi describing all the advantages of moving to Sky as “a game changer”.
It was not news that Ascot switches sides again in March, or that both Bangor and Chester will also be crossing over from the former Racing UK. However, Sky Sports Racing was also able to show off a new state-of-the-art studio in the heart of the Sky campus in west London, which will broadcast in HD, plus significant new gadgetry similar to that which works so well on Sky Sports Football.
In addition, international coverage will be ratcheted up massively, and on the talent front they too have made significant new signings, the whole package delivering what Imi describes as “a unique tone and unique personality”.
Simple maths suggests that the Irish switch will at times present Racing TV with too much content and leave Sky Sports Racing with too little. Publicly both channels disagree of course, and so it will be interesting to see how it pans out.
Launch date itself was a case in point, for in addition to the prestigious New Year’s Day fixture at Cheltenham and three more domestic cards, Racing TV had to find a way to shoehorn in racing from both Fairyhouse and Tramore, while over on Sky Sports Racing live coverage focused on two relatively low-key meetings at Fakenham and Southwell.
While an abandonment or two might have been welcomed by Racing TV, which will be particularly keen to ensure that the depth of their coverage of the Irish meetings satisfies the many professionals who were initially so dismayed by news of the switch, there will be a change of emphasis on such busy days. There will be more studio-based delivery and less punditry, especially on Saturdays.
Significantly, Racing TV, which calculates it will host 70% of live British and Irish racing and 90% of Group races, will introduce its own dedicated live stream on Racing TV Extra, accessible on website, mobile and TV apps, with every one of their 61 racecourses on either side of the Irish Sea having its own dedicated channel.
FitzGerald said: “This is the start of an exciting new era for the channel. Rebranding to Racing TV reflects the even greater quality and choice available from both sides of the Irish Sea and also retains some of the Racing UK brand heritage, of which we are very proud.
“We are building racing to be much more than just about Sky. When we set off at the start in 2004, Sky was effectively the only way to watch racing. That is not the case now. We have taken a much more multi-platform approach. It is more of a Netflix-style approach.”
Rebranding to Racing TV reflects the even greater quality and choice available from both sides of the Irish Sea
Sky Sports Racing has not taken the loss of Irish racing lying down and their deal with France Galop will go a long way towards filling the hole. It remains to be seen how they engage the interest of UK and Irish viewers, but there is no shortage of ideas on that front, and the channel will effectively become the home of international racing.
There is a minimum commitment for 250 race meetings a year to be shown from France, much of it with on-course presentation, and there is no shortage of quality, although much of it is concentrated on Sundays.
Imi says: “We believe in French racing and it works well timings-wise. It’s about engaging audiences, and we will work very closely with colleagues at Equidia and with owners and trainers over there. There is a story to tell over there and I think we can do a good job.”
He adds that it presents an “exciting opportunity”, especially when set alongside the 88 fixtures Sky Sports Racing will show exclusively from Hong Kong, the regular content from the States, including the American Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup, and Australian simulcasts, including the Melbourne Cup.
Underlining the significance of joining the fold at Sky Sports, Imi, who hinted that further media rights deals were imminent, pointed out: “International rights holders all understand the Sky Sports brand. They attach huge value to the audience we deliver and they buy into the cross promotion.”
Coverage on Racing TV will start earlier and finish later. The Betting Lab will be replaced by the Friday Club, which will be free to air and will include live racing from Dundalk. There will be a daily Mark Your Card, plus evening highlights and replays.
Luck On Sunday is staying, and the channel will introduce a new programme on Saturdays known as The Full SP.
The Friday Club, featuring Rishi Persad and weighing room wag Martin Dwyer, will presumably be in direct opposition to Get In, At The Races’ popular end of week wind-down (and wind-up!) show hosted by Luke Harvey and Jason Weaver, which will remain a key feature on Sky Sports Racing.
Programming there, as now, will feature news bulletins on the hour from 9am, alongside a preview show and, when time allows, racing review programmes before racing too.
Sky Sports Racing will also introduce a new racing round-up programme and borrow some Sky Sports ideas, including Monday Night Racing, hosted from the studio every week and always including live racing. The Sunday Forum will be rebranded as The Racing Debate and also rolled out on other days.
There was never much doubt that Gary O’Brien would join Racing TV, or for that matter Kevin O’Ryan, for as O’Brien himself has said, “you have to go where the work is”.
Both are hugely respected and popular within Irish racing circles and they join long-time Racing UK regulars Ruby Walsh and Donn McClean on an impressive team to which Kate Harrington, daughter of trainer Jessica, adds an intriguing extra dimension.
There are no significant changes to the UK front-of-camera line-up, which includes Lydia Hislop, Nick Luck and Tom Stanley, but it remains to be seen quite how they and the regular pundits are deployed within the tighter scheduling.
Confirmation that former Racing Channel presenter Alex Hammond was returning to her roots as lead presenter for Sky Sports Racing after 15 years on Sky Sports News has been welcomed by many.
She is joined by fellow new recruits Freddy Tylicki and Josh Apiafi on an impressive roster that already included the incoming and outgoing Broadcasters of the Year, Weaver and Harvey, plus former winner Matt Chapman. Jamie Lynch, who joins full-time with a much broader brief than he had on At The Races, will be another asset.
A potential issue at flagship fixture Royal Ascot regarding Chapman, Harvey and Weaver, all of whom are contracted to ITV, has been brushed aside by Executive Producer Rob Dakin, who says: “There’s no conflict. Jason, Luke and Matt will work for ITV at Royal Ascot, as they did this year, and we still have a great set of presenters available to us including Alex, Hayley [Moore], Gina [Bryce] and of course Freddy.
“We see the channels as complementary, and from our point of view ITV gives our talent a wider platform, which is great.”
Sky Sports Racing will enjoy major technological advantages over the old At The Races, and high definition broadcasting is just the start of them.
Imi says: “What we are most excited about is not just partnering with Sky, but particularly Sky Sports. They have the biggest and broadest portfolio of rights and a huge reputation internationally
for the quality of their output and also for their innovation. It’s going to look amazing.”
Dakin adds: “We are introducing touch-screen technology, which is nothing new to racing or sports broadcasting but is an area in which Sky has an incredible amount of expertise.
“There will be some very bespoke features for racing and we will be elevating the output.”
Portable touch-screens will be available on-course, and the players themselves will be encouraged to interact in review situations. Wider use of drones is promised, and Sky Sports Racing will have a dedicated camera at the start of every race as well as a super slow-mo camera on every finish line and another available for homing in on runners of special interest.
Crucially Sky Sports Racing is available in 14 million homes, and that’s across Sky and Virgin
It’s fair to say that it needed to catch up, for Racing UK has been broadcasting in HD for three years, and has long focused on delivering ultra-fast pictures, in addition to which touch-screen technology is a regular studio feature.
Racing TV’s chief technological advance is the aforementioned Extra service, allowing viewers to watch dedicated streams from all its 61 racecourses, including paddock, going down, the race itself and unsaddling coverage, and to view as many as four streams simultaneously via its new Quad Player.
AUDIENCE GROWTH POTENTIAL
As we all know, racing nowadays is constantly seeking to broaden its demographic and attract a younger audience, and in this respect there are clear benefits to be had from At The Races joining the Sky Sports fold.
Imi says: “Crucially we are available in 14 million homes, and that’s across Sky and Virgin, and also through several thousand commercial premises. We have impressive reach, and we are looking to increase and improve it.
“We are joining the Sky family, which is huge. We are looking at massive scale, with a huge number of customers, and a large number of colleagues whose expertise we can tap into. It’s hugely impressive.”
Sky Sports Racing will seek to maintain the attraction to the core audience and also to attract more casual sports fans who have yet to sample the sport. Dakin sees “a unique opportunity to grow the audience through cross- promotion by other Sky Sports channels – not just to the general public but to committed sports fans.”
Similarly Racing TV, which will be available to Sky and Virgin customers in Ireland, and Sky, Virgin and Freeview/ YouView customers in Britain, is confident the audience will materially grow.
We are always striving to keep evolving and innovating
It has plans to add further viewing platforms in Ireland, and the channel will also be available to broadband users around the world via the website and apps, as it was on Racing UK.
It will be free-to-view during live racing for Irish residents on a regular basis in January, and Irish residents will be able to take up a free one-month trial at any time during that month.
The world of media rights is a complex one and it is constantly evolving.
ITV’s rights extend only until the end of 2020 so it is impossible to be sure where we will be even in two years’ time, let alone in five or ten.
We are very confident that we can grow the business on the back of it
Imi insists that while the door will always be open at Sky Sports Racing, it is not dependent upon attracting new business.
He says: “We are taking a long-term view that does not rely on adding any more tracks. We’ve got a fantastic product and we are very confident that we can grow the business on the back of it.
“We aren’t speculating about any future media rights that might come up and what people might want to do, but if other racecourses, once they have seen what we can do, want to approach us our door is open and we will respond. We would love to add additional UK tracks but it’s not a focus or a priority right now.”
FitzGerald says: “ITV is the real shop window for the sport and racing’s terrestrial coverage is the envy of all other sports in Britain. Alongside ITV, Racing TV plays an important part in creating interest for the more engaged viewer who wants to immerse themselves in the sport.
“We are always striving to keep evolving and innovating as a racing broadcaster in order to showcase racing in the best possible way, as well as supporting national broadcasts of the sport.”
Racing TV has work to do if it is to persuade us that coverage of Irish racing can thrive in its hands, while Sky Sports Racing has to convince us that it can fill a reduced schedule with engaging content. However, if both channels walk the walk as well as they talk the talk, there is much to look forward to.