Cheltenham Festival proved that the popularity of horse racing is continuing to grow across the United Kingdom and Ireland. Record crowds poured through the venue over the course of the week in March, highlighting the importance that the event holds in the racing calendar.
Horse racing has been trending towards the top of the sporting zeitgeist in Britain, although it has a long way to go before it can provide a meaningful challenge for football. The sport reclaimed second place in terms of attendances in 2016 after the Rugby World Cup in 2015 knocked it down a peg.
There will be challenges ahead of racing as the Cricket World Cup will be hosted by England in 2019 along with the Ashes. Should the two events capture the imagination of the public, then racing will have another battle on its hands to retain the attention, especially for the flat season during the summer months.
Fortunately, the marquee races can still match its counterparts, with over 300,000 people attending Royal Ascot over the five days in 2017. Cheltenham Festival attracted a crowd of 262,637 in the four days of the competition, including 70,684 for Gold Cup Day.
The popularity has also been good news for betting companies. Sky Bet boosted its customer base significantly at the culmination of Cheltenham Festival, breaking the £2 million mark. ITV had a bittersweet experience broadcasting the event, with viewing figures declining slightly, although 11 races managed to draw an audience of over £1m.
Marketing officials from the racing world will be desperately aiming to continue the success of racing and drive up the television audience. Although there is plenty for horse racing to be happy about with its place in the sporting market, there’s always room for further growth. Here are three suggestions that they should consider to boost their appeal across a broad audience.
In 2016, ITV secured the broadcasting rights to show all the major racing events across both codes of the sport. The Grand National, Cheltenham Festival, Royal Ascot, Glorious Goodwood and the Derby are all shown on the free-to-air channel over a four-year period, which was worth £30m. ITV secured a coup by luring Ed Chamberlin away from Sky Sports and were able to add a number of pundits into the mix, including AP McCoy following his retirement.
However, one of the challenges of broadcasting racing is the fact that the majority of races occur during the day when the viewing public is at work. This was the case during Cheltenham Festival and may have been the reason for the decline in viewing figures. An effective highlights package may provide a solution to garner further interest as well as breaking the monopoly on ITV’s coverage, which has proven to be successful in the Premier League. The Times and Sky Sports put forward immediate action on their respective apps before Match of The Day airs on the BBC later in the evening. A similar plan could yield strong results in the television market from 2020 onwards.
Almost every sport has delved into the gaming market. Football has dominated with its FIFA series, becoming one of the most successful franchises in history. The NFL’s partnership with EA and their Madden series is equally as popular and sells millions of product every year with each new release. The world of racing could break into the market, although it would be a harder sell. However, cricket has managed to pull off a decent level of success with a number of different franchises.
Notably, Brian Lara Cricket had a cult appeal, which could open the possibility of a famous jockey such as Ruby Walsh to follow suit. If successful, it could bring forward a new generation of fans. Horseracing has already found a niche in the iGaming industry, with a slot like 50 Horses offering an introduction to the sport to players of every demographic. Admittedly, though, gaming and racing are odd bedfellows; it’s an area that has not been effectively targeted in the past but could yield dividends for interested developers.
With the rise of streaming services, there’s a market for documentaries and films to emerge. There are not many recent documentaries about notable figures, with McCoy one of the few to have a feature-length piece about his illustrious career. There has been a movie about the legendary horse Secretariat, which had a small bit of success in 2010. However, the market that racing officials should be looking at is the NFL and their Football Life and America’s Game series.
A Football Life tracks the careers of legends of the sport, recalling their rise to prominence and glory days playing or coaching in the league. A similar series could be used for racing, with ample figures to document. America’s Game documents the success of the Super Bowl winning team of the last season. Racing could use the same idea to follow the journey of the winners of the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Grand National. For example, this year’s Gold Cup winner Native River’s story would be fascinating, considering his failure at the event in 2017. If produced in the right way, it could have the success as the NFL series, which is widely anticipated by supporters ahead of every new campaign. It’s a market that they cannot afford to ignore anymore.