Turf TV pulls bookies down at the first fence

For want of a nail the kingdom was lost, or more precisely perhaps, the sport of kings.

Rarely in the effectiveness studies trotted out by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising and other interested parties could we hope to find a case for the power of advertising more cogently or succinctly argued; though, as will shortly become apparent, for this particular example we shall almost certainly search in vain.

This is a case of misleading advertising, and its fascination lies in the unexpected impact it has had on the racing industry. For quite some time, racing – largely but not exclusively synonymous with horse racing – has been an industry fraying at the edges. It has become enormously expensive to support and bookmakers – without whom the sector could not exist – feel they are shouldering too much of the financial burden. Currently, they are at loggerheads with the Government over a statutory levy of £85m for the 2008/09 season.

Like almost all mainstream sports today, racing has become heavily dependent on television rights as a revenue stream.The bookies financial disgruntlement over the levy has, until now, been partly offset by favourable access to a specialist TV channel, Satellite Information Services; which just happens to be half-owned by three of the big four bookies, Ladbrokes, William Hill and Betfred.

Enter a rival service, Turf TV, owned not by the bookies but by Amalgamated Racing, a consortium of 31 racecourses, and a technology company, Alphameric. It doesn’t take much to appreciate why the bookies regard Turf as an invasion of their turf. Or why they view its imminent, expensive and – as the bookies themselves would have it – superfluous installation in their outlets as a useful means of crowbarring down the levy by £50m.

Unfortunately, the knocking campaign which formed an integral part of the bookies’ strategy, centred around some financially creative arithmetic which trumped up SIS and blackened Turf.

The only knock-out effect of this ill-advised knocking campaign was on the authors of the campaign themselves.

The Advertising Standards Authority has just ruled the ad (there was only one, in Racing Post) misled, because SIS (and therefore Ladbrokes, William Hill and Betfred) had (surprise, surprise) failed to factor in the indivisible cost of the UK levy when assessing their own network’s highly favourable running costs.

And the outcome? The ASA verdict has amounted to a coach, as well as horses, driven through the bookies’ main argument (ie, the prohibitive cost of installing and running Turf TV) for bludgeoning down the cost of the levy. This at a highly sensitive time in their negotiations with government. They really should have taken better advice.

Stuart Smith, editor

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