On the right track?

The Sovereign Series, a new 10m horse racing competition, was launched amid much fanfare last week. Racing UK, the subscription television channel, in a venture with some of the countrys leading racecourses, announced that the series would transform British flat racing.

f2120The Sovereign Series, a new £10m horse racing competition, was launched amid much fanfare last week. Racing UK, the subscription television channel, in a venture with some of the country’s leading racecourses, announced that the series would “transform British flat racing”.

The concept appears quite simple. Beginning in 2010, ten of the country’s most prestigious races, including the Derby and the 2000 Guineas, will be linked in a competition that will culminate in the crowning of the season’s champion racehorse, with a prize of £2m. Thus creating a “narrative” that will broaden consumer interest in flat racing.

So far, so good. The idea is to increase racing’s value in terms of sports rights and also to promote itself to a new and younger audience.

But the problem is that critics have already poured scorn on the analogies Racing UK has drawn, such as likening the series to Formula One or the Premier League, dismissing these as “marketing hype”. Channel 4 Racing presenter Alastair Downs describes the series as “ill-conceived, under-researched and delusional”.

But, speaking exclusively to Marketing Week, Simon Bazalgette, executive chairman of Racing UK and chief executive designate of the Jockey Club, is robust in his defence of the series. “We’ve looked at the product, we’ve identified the weaknesses, we’ve developed the product and now we’re marketing it,” he says, adding: “You could not get a more normal process”.

The series aims to create a clear structure so that anyone can see which horse is winning at any given time of the season, leading up to a grand finale. But many fear that while the idea is fundamentally sound, the system proposed is at best “rushed” and at worst “unworkable”.

Critics point out that because the ten races involved are run over different distances for horses of different ages, the competition immediately becomes confusing for the public. Then, because most flat race horses run a maximum of seven races a season with many only running four or five, the desired “narrative” may be hard for spectators to identify, despite the £3m that has been allocated to marketing the concept to consumers.

Bookmakers, embroiled in a High Court case with Turf TV, the dedicated betting shop broadcaster and sister brand of Racing UK, over broadcast rights from racecourses, are reluctant to criticise, for fear of making worse what one terms the already “fraught” relationship. Behind the scenes, one bookmaking source calls the series a “joke” and another says the way the series is constructed “risks alienating television and sponsors”.

Bazalgette dismisses the potential problems as “details”. “The system we are proposing would have produced the best horse for the last few seasons.” Bazalgette hopes that trainers will be tempted to run their horses more often when the series launches in 2010. He also hopes that sponsors and broadcasters will be attracted to fund the proposition. The series will cost £10m in prize money, £5m in addition to an existing £5m, with a further £3m earmarked for marketing.

Pippa Collett, managing director of Sponsorship Consulting, concurs that racing needs to attract a broader audience but asks: “Where is the research that says this is the solution? Perhaps this series should be more about the jockeys than the horses. At least they can compete in all the races. Personalities like Frankie Dettori could emerge and that might interest brands.”

Bazalgette admits no consumer research has been done but claims there was a nine-month “consultation” with trainers, owners, jockeys and industry bodies. He says a jockeys’ competition will run alongside the series but adds that results from Racing UK’s research do not support the view that the public would engage more with jockeys than horses.

Dominic Curran, director of sponsorship agency Synergy, agrees there is great potential in racing but wonders if Racing UK has rushed the solution. “The whole point of a narrative is right. People want to be able to understand and follow something. Racing has got a rich heritage and you can package that like any other sport. Racing UK has tried to take that heritage and give it a modern twist but one worries it may not be the finished product.” Curran adds: “Critically, from a sponsor’s point of view, they have no terrestrial television deal yet.”

Bazalgette seems unfazed by what he terms as “people kicking the tyres” of the concept following the launch. Nor is he bothered by concerns that the series has neither a broadcast deal nor a sponsor lined up. He points out that racing has been in similar scenarios before: “In the case of Racing UK, we didn’t have the subscribers. In the case of Turf TV, we didn’t have the bookmakers signed up, and now with the Sovereign Series, we have no broadcast deal.”

One racing journalist suggests last week’s launch was aimed at the terrestrial broadcasters in an attempt to “ramp up the media rights”. Bazalgette counters this: “It is all about increasing the value to broadcasters, not about increasing the cost. Racing is declining in interest because it does not engage the broader sports fan.”

Bazalgette is acutely aware that something radical has to be done to interest broadcasters in racing. While the BBC screens the Derby – the jewel in the crown of British flat racing, and the Grand National – the National Hunt season highlight, other racing coverage nearly vanished from British terrestrial screens a year ago.

When the Tote pulled out just seven months into a three-year deal with Channel 4 Racing, only racing fan Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s willingness to stump up an estimated £4m ensured that regular racing coverage survived.

Bazalgette says he is in ”ongoing” discussions with broadcasters but admits it is a “difficult market”. The BBC and ITV have both already committed large swathes of budget to other sports. Five seems to have little interest in racing, while sources at Channel 4, which currently screens six of the ten Sovereign Series races, say there are worries about the broadcast rights.

In one possible scenario, the Sovereign Series could be sold off to one broadcaster, leaving less popular races without a home. Bazalgette says he knows that broadcasters are nervous that he may be “trying to increase prices in an unjustified way”. But he is under no illusions, he says. “Racing is not such a must-have that we can force broadcasters to pay for something they don’t want.”

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