Thursday, April 28, 2011

Royal Wedding ramblings

Wednesday's trip to Pontefract was rather pleasant too. Silken Thoughts didn't prove quite good enough - she ran fifth, which was a creditable performance, even if obviously not quite good enough to see her finishing in the frame - but that's not the end of the world because we know that you can't win every time, and as long as they run well and safely, which she did, then you can return home happy and in the belief that their day will come. She is a lovely, enthusiastic and, touching wood, sound filly whom it is a pleasure to train and, although she remains a maiden after eight starts, I hope that she will shed her maiden tag in the fullness of time - probably just as soon as her trainer gets his act together and finally puts her in a race which she can win! Even though this week we now seem have left the lovely premature summer conditions behind us (merely for the time being, I hope) and our day-time temperatures are now in the mid teens rather than the mid-20s, it was still a gloriously sunny, if breezy, day on top of Pontefract's well-maintained hill. Do we know, by the way, what to call a spell of summer weather in the spring? If we get one in the autumn it is an Indian summer, so what is it in the spring?

As I had got to the races in plenty of time, I had ample opportunity to read the Racing Post, which of course contained some fitting tributes to the mighty Sadler's Wells (pictured in 1997) who had died the previous day at the age of 30 - coincidentally the same age to which lived Hyperion, the other contender for the title of Europe's greatest sire of the 20th century and the horse whose statue graces Newmarket High Street. That, though, was not the only topic, because we also had details of the unveiling of Qipco's sponsorship of the British Champions' Series. I would like to take the opportunity here both to applaud Qipco for its sponsorship and to make a related point which appears to have been overlooked. At the outset I should declare an interest in that I was and remain opposed to the significant reorganisation of the racing programme which has been effected to allow for the creation of the British Champions' Series, including relocating and/or renaming some very historic races. I feel strongly that one of British racing's strongest suits is the history and heritage that it has behind it and I believe that I am far from alone in feeling protective of this background; so I am far from amused by the destruction of so much tradition in one (to my mind pointless) blow. Anyway, I digress.

Basically, the background to the creation of the British Champions' Series is racing's financial plight. Racing is reliant primarily on owners' contributions, but it also depends on, amongst other things, the levy, picture rights, racecourse gate receipts and sponsorship. As racing's return from the betting industry remains both reducing and uncertain, sponsorship becomes ever more crucial. However, the problem racing has, apparently, is that, unlike other major sports, it is not seen by the marketing departments of big business to be a suitable medium for sponsorship: the household names which vie to throw so many millions at premiership soccer, golf, Formula One, 20/20, one-day and Test cricket, Wimbledon, Six Nations' rugby, the Olympics etc. apparently do not regard racing as a worthwhile medium because, we are told, racing's audience is the wrong one. Not only is racing's audience, apparently, too small, but also, more pertinently, it contains too many old people and too many poor people: what we need are droves of younger and richer people, the socio-economic groups which the admen aim to attract. It needs to be the case that when marketing gurus walk into a wine bar in Soho, they hear the bright young things discussing who will the Champion Stakes, rather than whom will Man U sign next week, who will get pole position in Monaco, who will win make the Ryder Cup squad, whether the wicket in Colombo will suit Jimmy Anderson, whether Jonny Wilkinson's not as accurate as he was or whether Andy Murray will reach the semi-final. Soccer had a little bit of that problem but solved it with the Premier League, while cricket had the problem but addressed it with 20/20 - so now those two sports are seen to be capturing the attention of young people with disposable incomes, the people whom advertisers and marketers try to woo. Hence the big multi-national corporations giving all those sports millions for the privilege of having their names associated with them. Racing, however, does not appeal to such advertisers, so the aim of the creation of the British Champions' Series is that racing, by reinventing itself, can join the 21st century: its easy-to-follow "narrative" and its simplicity, its modernity, its trendiness and its glitziness, its re-inventedness, re-packagedness and its dumbed-downess will supposedly add it to the list of sports which this mythical targetted audience follows. And hence the sponsorship money will flow in - and then if racing is receiving several million from each of a couple of dozen multi-national corporations, whether the levy yield goes up or down by a few million won't really matter.

That's the aim. The British Champions' Series is thus racing's version of 20/20 cricket, with the abandonment of so much tradition and history a worthwhile price to pay to guarantee the future financial health of the sport. And if many of racing's core supporters feel the same way that so many of cricket's core supporters feel about 20/20 ("entertainment for people with short attention spans", as Michael Holding pointedly corrected me when I described it as "cricket for people with short attention spans") and echo the poignant words of Paul Kelly at the end of his musical homage to Sir Donald Bradman ("Now the players all wear colours, the circus is in town - and I no longer can go down there, down to that sacred ground") - then that's regrettable, but still merely a small price to pay. However, it's only merely small price to pay if the plan works - and so far the evidence is that it hasn't. Racing's problem is that pretty much all of its sponsorship comes from within: from bookmaking firms, from studs and from company's whose principals are moved to sponsor because of their enthusiasm for and love of the sport. The British Champions' Series, if it works, is to break the mould, becoming the Barclaycard British Champions' Series, the BP British Champions' Series, the Mercedes British Champions' Series or the Microsoft British Champions' Series. Instead, we have had to fall back on the old formula: it is the Qipco British Champions' Series, a 'hobby' sponsorship thanks to the generosity of one of the sport's patrons rather than a commercial sponsorship by a profit-driven company. Karl Oliver, a man "with a background in sports marketing" (see, I'm learning the language), was hired by BCS to clinch the deal and we can be sure that he has spent the last several months knocking on all big business' doors with his impressive overview of how racing's audience is about to become the audience to which big business wishes to appeal - and it is fair to say that the unanimous verdict of big business is that the plan is not going to work, with not one of these companies having come on board. Instead, racing's newest big patron, a prince from Qatar, has kindly stepped in to fill the breach (on the suggestion of his racing manager David Redvers rather than thanks to anything which Karl Oliver has done) because of his love of the sport. (I am, by the way, aware that the official line is that Qipco's decision has not been influenced by its principal's enthusiasm for racing but that Qipco is doing this because it believes it to be a sound investment - but I don't think that I am being unrealistic in taking this face-saving statement with a pinch of salt). This sponsorship is wonderful news for racing because historically racing has always relied, and will continue to rely, on the patronage of wealthy enthusiasts, large-scale or small-scale; and so the fact that this excellent man has joined their ranks is genuinely welcome news. But it is also a clear sign that the plan has failed to achieve its aim - which is rather sad, as the changes would only have been justifiable had they indeed made some progress towards securing racing's financial future.

One might point out that the changes have made some progress towards securing racing's financial future in that Qipco is paying many millions towards prize money, marketing and the salaries of the people who have been riding (and will surely, and sadly, continue to ride) the BCS gravy train. However, this is not a valid point as I cannot believe that it was necessary to tear down so much of our sport's history to secure support from our new patron. British racing's biggest selling points, particularly to international investors, have always been its history, tradition and time-honoured milestones (the most generous patron which British racing has ever seen, Sheikh Mohammed has clearly never found objections to the status quo) and I really don't think that, in retrospect, the sport needed to have been re-invented and re-packaged (ie vandalized, as I and so many others see it) to have attracted sponsorship from Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah al Thani, owner of the lovely Makfi (pictured). So it looks as if all the changes have been made needlessly, which is sad.

As a closing observation to this over-long chapter, I ought to point out that subsequent events could cause a review of this conclusion. While clearly the verdict of big business is currently that this hoped-for new audience is not going to be attracted, it could turn out that big business has misjudged the situation and that all the Bens (cast your mind back to this mythical character about whom we read so much a couple of years ago) will turn their attentions our way. In that case, in a couple of years' time we will see the multi-national corporations starting to pour money into our sport. I would be delighted to see this come to pass and I would unhesitatingly admit that I was wrong. But just don't hold your breath.


Nathan said...

It's a sad state of affairs John and unfortunately i have to agree with your comments :-(

SmarterSig said...

If Racing wishes to attract the smarter wealthier supporter then we need to acknowledge that for the vast majority, Racing's attraction is betting and not the aesthetic quality of the sport. We should therefore, despite the best efforts of bookmakers and the media, promote Racing as an intellectual exercise which can lead to financial independence for those that master it. Instead those that have reached such a level are forced to keep a low profile for fear of persecution by the bookmaking industry.

Nathan said...

Racing should be able to attract a diverse following. There is the ownership angle, the track entertainment/enjoyment factor and the betting angle. I think racing made a very serious mistake on many levels when climbing into bed with the bookmakers and i suspect, John will likely know more than myself, that racing's problems have been caused from within in a similar way to snookers mis-fortunes. Has racing been guilty of serious mis-management? Yes. Why? Perhaps racing has never really been run as a business, by business and marketing men rewarded on performance but instead fell into the trap of becoming a boys club for those who would climb aboard the gravy train they thought would never end. Perhaps everyone else is out for themselves too not just the bookmakers but race tracks, governing bodies etc. Things are now so dire that racing is struggling from all angles and the future looks bleak. Who would want the job of revitalizing our sport? Pulling everything and everyone together, especially in such testing times looks a near impossible and thank-less task. Maybe i'm wrong; to be honest my head hurts just thinking about it!