Thursday, November 21, 2013

The elephant in Sponsorgate's room

Have you been following the Sponsorgate thing?  It's been easy enough to notice because firstly the seemingly-easily-riled Ralph Topping, who is regularly quoted in the Racing Post explaining why he isn't happy about something, was given plenty of column inches at the start of the week to air his grievances; then Julian Muscat filled his column on the subject yesterday; and then Simon Bazalgette was given space in today's edition to try to pour oil onto the troubled waters.  The problem was that an employee of Jockey Club Racecourses had supposedly told Topping, formerly a bigwig in William Hill's firm, that it would be preferable if the Betfair Chase, the William Hill King George VI Steeplechase and the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup were all to share the same sponsor - and if that sponsor was not a bookie.  Of course, if the man did say this to Topping, he needs to become less blunt - but, of course, the elephant in the room is that what he was right.  He just shouldn't have said it.

It's wrong to overlook the fact that merely because something is true does not necessarily mean that it can be said.  This is one of those cases - just like the fact that someone has aged and put on weight since you last saw them doesn't alter the fact that it's not a good idea to tell them so.  Basically, this all goes back to the basis of the creation of the British Champions Series - and I think that we're in danger of forgetting why that was created.  So this seems a suitable moment to remind ourselves.

Racing's problem is that the marketing men who control the big budgets of the multi-national corporations appear not to regard racing as suitable for sponsorship.  God knows why, because racing is a very popular sport, and appeals to large amounts of people right across the social spectrum.  Always has done and, God willing, always will.  However, while the terms 'upper-, middle- and working-class' don't really apply any more because the two ends of the spectrum are both relatively thinly populated nowadays (which is why all mainstream political parties tend to have very similar ideologies, because there's no future in appealing to any group other than the 90% of the population who fall in the middle), racing has always supposedly appealed more to the people at the two ends of the social spectrum than to those in the middle.

I am aware that that previous paragraph is guilty of containing some terrible generalisations, but that's the point - so are the marketing men, who reckon they'll appeal to Mr Average much more effectively by throwing umpteen millions at soccer, rugby, cricket, tennis, golf, athletics or Formula One than at racing.  The man in the Chelsea wine bar and his counterpart on the Clapham omnibus will both be wooed, apparently, if the corporation has its name attached to any of those other sports, but not if it has its name attached to racing.  Strange and untrue, of course - but the marketing men, the men who matter, believe that it's true.

Hence the creation of the British Champion Series.  This was to be racing's Premier League, Olympics, 20/20 series, Grand Prix, Open, Wimbledon, or Six Nations.  Racing's problem was that we could get sponsorship from within (bookmakers, studs, companies owned or run by racing enthusiasts) but we couldn't get any significant sponsorship from detached large-scale commercial entities.  If we did, we wouldn't need to worry about exactly what or wasn't being genereated by the levy, offshore bookmakers, betting exhanges, media rights deals, blah, blah, blah.

Hence the creation of the British Champions' Series, a gimmick to enable racing to shake off its traditionalist image and appeal to the 21st masses, just as other sports had re-invented themselves.  (Their theory, not mine).  The aim was that we'd have the Microsoft British Champions' Series, or Apple ..., or American Express ..., or Mercedes ..., or Nokia ..., or HSBC ..., or ... .  And, once the first big fish had been landed - as one doesn't have to be particularly intelligent to forge a successful career in marketing, and so the marketeers behave like sheep - then the others would line up to 'get a piece of the action' (as they'd probably say).  All these tens of millions of pounds would be flooding in, and racing's otherwise-insoluble financial crisis would be a thing of the past.  Seemples!

Of course, it didn't work.  The marketing guru hired to land the big fish, Karl Oliver, achieved nothing.  Fortunately David Redvers came to the rescue by suggesting to his patron Sheikh Fahad al Thani that sponsoring the series would be a good (and enjoyable) thing to do, and this excellent man very, very kindly came to British racing's rescue, through his QIPCO business.  Which is wonderful, and why I'm always delighted to see Sheikh Fahad enjoy the success which he deserves.  But the line that it's a commercial sponsorship is, sadly, putting an unrealistically brave face on it: it isn't, and the QIPCO British Champions' Series is another example of one of racing's wealthy benefactors kindly keeping the show on the road from within, which certainly wasnt the original aim.

There are/were probably two other opportunities to open the floodgates of commercial sponsorship, ie the Derby and the Grand National.  The Derby has never been any more successful than the British Champions' Series - the Vodafone Derby, the Ever Ready Derby and the Investec Derby have come about because of the passion of, respectively, Sir Ernest Harrison, Sir Gordon White and Bernard Kantor, the latter being a man as deserving of our good will as is Sheikh Fahad al Thani - but the Grand National has at times broken the mould: Colt Cars, News Of The World and John Smith spring straight to mind.  Sadly, although it has broken through, it's always done so without inspiring others to follow suit.  And now I suspect that there is more benevolence than objectivity in its forthcoming Crabbie's sponsorship.

Anyway, thanks to the dominance of the Maktoums, Flat racing has gone out of vogue and National Hunt racing has come into fashion, as your average millionaire has realised that he has a chance of making a consistent impression at the highest levels over jumps, but none whatsoever on the Flat.  The Cheltenham Festival is the new Royal Ascot - and the season already has its "narrative" (ie 362 days of build-up and then four days of racing, as RUK, the Racing Post and C4 would have us believe).  Hence, if we could package this narrative, we'd have a solid-gold marketing opportunity.  (See, I told you it was easy: I'm picking up the lingo in one session, much easier than Latin).  Oh, but hang on: we've already packaged it.  Handicaps have gone out of fashion over jumps as they have done on the Flat now that there is a plethora of valuable weight-for-age or set-weights-with-penalties races, so the Hennessy is no longer the big race of the autumn, having been superceded by the new Betfair Chase at weight-for-age.  Then there's the King George VI Steeplechase in the winter, and the Cheltenham Gold Cup in the spring.  Bingo!  All on  Jockey Club racecourses, so that makes things even easier.  Now, get me the email address for General Motors' marketing department ...

Of course it would be better if this three-race series was sponsored externally (ie not by bookmakers or companies controlled by racing enthusiasts, such as William Blenkiron of Middle Park Stud or Colonel Bill Whitbread, two of racing's great benefactors who instituted ground-breaking sponsorships) just as it would be better if the British Champions' Series was; or the Derby, or the Grand National.  But until the creators of our brave new world actually do what they are meant to do (ie attract Ben, and then be seen to have attracted Ben, rather than merely antagonise Brian to no purpose - again, their phraseology, not mine) that, sadly, isn't an option.  Until such time as it is, the patronage of the few patrons which racing does have is even more valued than it would be if we had other options (and any patronage will always be valued, however many other options we have).  And only a fool would tell our patrons otherwise.

Today's illustrations (seven pictures of Wasabi and Hugh taken on Bury Hill around 10.15 am, and one of Stan in the yard an hour or so later ) make the day seem more clement than it was.


neil kearns said...

For once try asI I might I can't add anything to that other than to say that ten percent of Brian's entertainment spend is better than zip of Ben's and Mr marketing should realise that

However I would disagree that the down grading of handicaps in favour of fixed weight races is far better for the sport but there again as Brian Iwould say that

neil kearns said...

That didn't read right I am in favour of fixed weight races

Brian Jones said...

did someone called for Brian...