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20 Oct 2015

Will plummeting TV ratings force racing’s sponsors to declare “they’re off”?

Posted on October 20, 2015 by

The British Horseracing Authority has begun the tender process for a new terrestrial TV contract for racing and, given how the TV audience has been decimated over the past few years, the sport’s key sponsors will be watching with interest…and not a little concern.

Media coverage is an important factor in any major sports sponsorship decision, so the fact Channel 4’s viewing figures for most of the major race meetings have plummeted in the past three years will have marketing directors reviewing their strategies and budgets.

If the BHA and its TV partner can’t reverse the trend and bring at least half a million ‘lapsed’ viewers back to racing on a Saturday afternoon, the sport’s commercial deals are bound to be hit. Sponsors and advertisers will simply take their cash elsewhere.

Two years ago we said Channel 4 needed a major overhaul of its racing coverage if it was to stop the dramatic haemorrhaging of viewers that’s taken place since IMG Media replaced Highflyer as the producer of ‘Channel 4 Racing’ and ‘The Morning Line’.

If anything, the picture has actually worsened since then. Quite frankly, if Channel 4 Racing were a hospital patient, its prognosis would have moved from ‘serious’ to ‘critical’.

Last weekend, viewing figures for the well-publicised Champions Day at Ascot fell by a third compared to 2014, to an average of just 367,000. And there was no Rugby World Cup in competition on ITV at that time.

If that doesn’t sound bad enough, compare it with the 500,000 that preferred to tune in to the amateur boxing on BBC1, or the 800,000 that watched an edition of ‘Bargain Hunt’ straight after the boxing.

That’s like Golden Horn being beaten by two donkeys in a 400 yard sprint across Scarborough beach.

Rod Street, boss of the British Champions Series, was the master of understatement when he said he was “surprised” by the figures. Surely “embarrassed” would have been a more accurate description?

Attendances at race meetings are actually quite healthy (in fact, they’ve reached record levels this year), and horse racing is still one of our top five spectator sports, but it needs to engage with the armchair viewer as well as it engages with those who turn up at the course.

In our previous post, we identified a number of issues with C4’s racing programming that we felt needed addressing. Some of those changes have been made, but too many elements – such as the journalist-dominated presenting team – remain the same.

Bookmakers – who also happen to be big sponsors – won’t be happy about the dwindling viewing figures, either. Their sponsorship cash dominates racing, and their advertising budgets dominate C4 on a Saturday afternoon.

Sponsorship and advertising are primarily about attracting new customers. There are other (and cheaper) ways of getting your existing customers to spend more or to have greater brand loyalty.  Sponsors need audiences, and if Channel 4 Racing isn’t delivering those audiences in the same numbers it’s bound to have a knock-on effect on sponsorship rights packages and TV advertising rates.

There are rumours ITV may bid for the prestige meetings as part of the BHA’s new TV rights contract, leaving the two dedicated satellite racing channels to handle the day-to-day stuff.

C4 only pays circa £15m a year for around 90 days of racing (about the same as Sky pays to cover two Premier League games), but the bulk of the contract’s value is in the big meetings like the Cheltenham Festival, Grand National, Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood.

ITV could easily pick those off, which would cut racing’s terrestrial TV coverage by more than 75 per cent and have a significant knock-on effect across the sport, not least in sponsorship income.

Let’s hope that’s not Channel 4’s legacy to horse racing in Britain.

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