Live racing coverage was blanked out in the majority of Britain’s betting shops on Monday as the result of an ongoing dispute over media rights payments between bookmakers and racecourses. The situation is unlikely to be resolved in time to prevent another blank day in the shops on Tuesday , while the Racing Post on Monday led its front page on the (not entirely unexpected) news that ITV Racing’s audience figures on ITV4 on Saturday had fallen “well short” of its debut numbers on the main channel.
Add in an ongoing controversy over Rule 4 deductions which kicked off at Cheltenham on 1 January and racing seems to have lurched into the new year in the same, somewhat uncertain fashion in which it staggered out of the old one. Since 2017 has the potential to be a historic year for Britain’s second‑biggest spectator sport, this does not feel like an auspicious way to begin.
In theory at least, 1 April will be racing’s bright new dawn, when the sport casts off the yoke of the statutory Levy system and starts to earn what it is due from both high-street cash betting and, finally, the increasingly dominant online sector.
Whether the government will manage to get a levy replacement over the line on time remains to be seen, not least since it has a considerably bigger project under way with an identical deadline imminent. If it does, and the scheme either escapes or survives legal challenges, it will be one of the most significant moments for the sport in this or any year in the last half-century.
The triennial review of gaming machines is also imminent, which offers at least some hope that the government will do something about the toxin that has been poisoning the off-course industry since high-stakes roulette at three spins a minute was legitimised in 2005.
Any move to cut the maximum stake on fixed odds betting terminals from £100 to a more sensible £2, to reduce the number of machines per shop or, better yet, both, could result in a short-term hit to racing’s income via media rights if – and it is a big if – it results in a wave of shop closures. If racing does find itself staring at a hole in the balance sheet, however, the blame will lie squarely with the short-sighted administrators and executives who held their collective noses and threw their support behind FOBTs in the first place.
There is also an (outside) possibility that gambling advertisements will face new restrictions during racing hours, which would sink ITV Racing’s business plan without trace. This still seems unlikely, but there is a definite sense abroad – again, thanks at least in part to the FOBTs – that the gambling industry has been getting away with too much for too long. It is impossible to know for sure quite where this might lead.
In the meantime, though, there is little point in worrying unduly about ITV4’s viewing figures on Saturday, which dropped to an average audience of 325,000 and a peak of 419,000, from a peak of 831,000 when ITV’s racing coverage launched on its main channel on New Year’s Day.
Channel 4 averaged 556,000 viewers on the same weekend last year, but the decision to switch to ITV was always about increasing the ratings when the sport stages showpiece events such as the Cheltenham Festival in March.
From the broadcaster’s point of view, the audience on a “standard” Saturday comprises the ones who bet and the casual viewers who do not, and the former are worth much more than the latter when it comes to selling ads. If they can persuade around half a million committed punters to find their way to ITV4 every Saturday, and the early evidence is that they can, then a healthy return on the £30m they have paid for a four-year monopoly is within reach.
Few viewers are ever likely to feel that ITV’s coverage is perfect in every way. Many will complain about aspects of its approach or the style of individual presenters. But the racing will continue to draw them back and, in the end, the numbers that matter are that £30m, and the price of a 30-second ad between races.