Horse racing, perhaps the ultimate mainstay product of the betting industry, has been suffering from declining public interest in recent years.
Attempts to reach out to a new audience and drive attendances have been numerous, with notable developments including the launch of the Racing League in 2021, using a team based format to appeal to a wider sporting viewership.
For Barry Hearn, Founder and President of sports promotions giant Matchroom Sport, horse racing requires urgent changes and dire support from those that benefit from it, as he laid out his case in an interview with the Racing Post today.
“At the moment racing has excellent coverage from ITV, although I don’t think they’re paying enough money,” he said. “The bookmakers aren’t paying enough either, and if I was in charge there’d be a thundering row.”
Under current conditions, horse racing in the UK receives financial support from bookmakers in the form of the levy, by which 10% of sportsbooks profits are channelled back into the sport each year.
Leading racing stakeholders have been campaigning for a reform to the betting levy for some time, with the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), Jockey Club and the Horsemen’s Group forming a “steering group” in October 2020.
The groups have also been engaging with MPs over the past few years on the issue, including meeting with Ministers, to discuss the topic of reviewing the betting levy.
Racecourses currently rely on spectators for around 50% of their income, and in today’s economic circumstances, this has been a cause for concern, as potential racegoers may shy away from attending in order to save money.
“How can racing be down on attendances when I’m 40% up with darts in the same period?” continued Hearn, reflecting on his experience promoting darts and snooker events.
“A lot of them are the same type of customers you want: working-class people. There’s a lot more of them than upper-class people.”
He added: “I look at racing and think, ‘What’s the future?’ I need encouragement. There’s a level of professionalism and commercialism that’s missing.”
As mentioned above, racing has pursued several measures in order to bolster its viewership and attendance figures, although as Hearn noted the sport still receives extensive TV coverage.
This has included the aforementioned racing league, whilst the Jockey Club has previously stated that it will ‘explore every option’ with regards to expanding the Cheltenham Festival from four days to five.
On the other hand, events such as Cheltenham and the Grand National continue to draw big crowds and TV audiences, with the latter event returning £1m in prize money to participants for the first time this year.
Likewise, betting engagement also remains consistent – for example, Entain recorded 12.75m bets placed during the three days of the festival this year, a ‘record’ for the Ladbrokes and Coral operator.
Should Hearn’s suggestions be taken on board and racing leaderships’ calls for a levy review materialise, a greater slice of these profits would be shared by bookmakers with the sport.
“This is a time for bravery now,” Hearn asserted to the Racing Post. “It needs stronger leadership with better evaluation and support – it needs investment and diversity. Racing has to be saying, enough is enough, we have to expand the business, otherwise it dies.”