Just a month ago Racecourse Media Group (RMG), the body responsible for selling racing’s media rights, was anticipating a bidding war, particularly for racing’s “crown jewel” events of the Grand National, The Derby and Royal Ascot. These are all currently shown on BBC television, and the deal for them is up for renewal at the end of this year.
Richard Fitzgerald, chief executive of RMG, had suggested that the combination of the successful first British Champions Day and a stronger calendar of weekend meetings had renewed the appetite amongst mainstream broadcasters for racing. He hoped that ITV would add racing to its portfolio, which in recent years has expanded to include tennis, cricket and cycling. Those hopes were dashed when ITV made it clear that, even with access to the £2m+ advertising revenue Channel 4 generates from the betting industry, it had no interest in putting racing into its schedules.
That news was certain to reduce the amount of money RMG could expect to receive from the sale of broadcasting rights from 2013 onwards. And just this week it appeared that the BBC was so unwilling to be drawn into a blind auction that it was ready to let Channel 4 have a free run at the 13 days of racing the Beeb currently shows.
Commentators were clear in their view that this would not be good news for racing. Jim McGrath said, “By having the Grand National and Royal Ascot on the BBC you’re sending out a message that they are great traditional events. Despite what anyone might say about the BBC – and in many cases criticism is justified – it does give gravitas to the events.”
Former stalwart of the BBC team until his retirement in 2003, Jimmy Lindley, added, “In my opinion big events should be on the BBC and I think racing will suffer if they lose it. The world thinks the BBC is the most prestigious channel and I think it will be detrimental to racing if the best races leave.” And the current face of BBC racing, Clare Balding, was fulsome in her praise of coverage. "I am immensely proud of the work I have done with the team on the BBC and we have won awards for it over the years. The history and legacy (of BBC racing presentation) has been very beneficial."
There were also fears that the loss of BBC coverage might make racing sponsorship a less attractive proposition, as the audience would likely reduce. Although there is no sponsorship of Royal Ascot, the John Smith’s brewery name was exposed to 8.8 million viewers of the National last year, and investment bankers Investec clearly see their investment in the Derby as well worthwhile. Perhaps it’s all the top hats, Pimms and seafood at Epsom!
But as an insider in the sponsorship business told the Racing Post, moving to Channel 4 wouldn’t be great. “They (sponsors) would have to think carefully about that decision – if not as many people are watching then obviously that affects the value of the sponsorship. I was surprised to see (the deal) is as far down the line as it is.”