Has racing come to terms with ITV?
Mike Deasy asks if ITV and racing have agreed a new contract or if it’s another false dawn
We’ve been here before. A story in Monday’s Daily Mail reported that an agreement between racing and ITV had been reached for a three-year renewal of their contract for the sport to continue with the free-to-air broadcaster.
It was nearly three years ago, with much of the first, four-year agreement still to run, that The Times first claimed that there would be an early renewal of the deal. Since then, similar stories followed, including some in the Racing Post.
Then the papers showed some signs of jitteriness. Concerns were expressed that all was not well with the negotiations, with suggestions that Ascot, which is the biggest track outside the two major racecourse groupings, was unhappy that, although ITV were paying more in the deal, Ascot’s share would be lower.
The fact that around the same time Ascot ditched Racing TV for Sky Sports Racing for their pay-per-view contract was a sign of the track’s maverick tendencies and increased speculation that they were a stumbling block.
The Ascot issue then seemed to have been smoothed over but another factor emerged which reigned in hope that a deal was imminent.
Jockey Club Racecourses appointed a new group chief executive, Delia Bushell, who had a background working in television rights. She became involved in the negotiations with ITV and the process slowed down as she scrutinised the deal. It was also suggested that she wanted to see if there were other deals to be had.
There was then something of a worrying standoff between the parties with reports that ITV were becoming frustrated at the lack of progress. Indeed, stories emerged that there was friction around the negotiation table or, to be more precise, friction without the negotiation table being in use.
Differences then again seemed to be smoothed over, only for the coronavirus pandemic to break out and, in particular for racing, leading to the cancellation of the Grand National. ITV wanted a refund for the loss of the race but there was pushback at the amount demanded.
That led to more ill-feeling as ITV sent a legal letter saying it was withholding a quarterly payment in the light of the lost Aintree meeting. That problem too has apparently been resolved.
Throughout the three-years plus of ITV’s current contract, the broadcaster has, after a wobbly start and with audience figures selectively reported, been a hit with its coverage.
As well as winning awards, it has increased viewing numbers compared to the four lost years of the last deal with Channel 4, been innovative in terms of coverage, tested evening racing and, with racing’s resumption during lockdown, taken every opportunity to showcase the sport.
Unlike C4 which, seeing viewing figures drop, sensed that it was not in pole-position for a new contract and launched a failed, rear-guard action to retain its involvement with racing, ITV has always been trying new things and appears to want to have racing in its sports portfolio.
So that bring us to the Daily Mail report. What might be different this time that an agreement has been reached? It may be the Mail style, but there’s a degree of confidence in the writing that suggests the parties have arrived at a point where pen can be put to paper.
For the sake of the sport, let’s hope the Mail has got it right.
This column’s attention to the Mail story was triggered by a Tweet from the Guardian’s racing editor Tony Payley who flagged-up the item. It was curious that the Mail’s own racing hack, Marcus Townend, didn’t use social media to highlight the “exclusive” story. Perhaps it was because it was written by the paper’s chief sports reporter, Matt Hughes, and not him.
Jockey Club keen to dampen speculation
If a deal with ITV is imminent, it coincides with the departure by Delia Bushell (pictured) as Jockey Club Racecourses’ representative from the board of Racecourse Media Group (RMG), the enterprise which owns and negotiates media rights on behalf of the Jockey Club and most other racecourses outside Arena Racing.
In a statement, the Jockey Club wanted to prevent anybody adding 2+2 and getting 5. The reason being that Bushell leaving RMG frees her up to potentially look at longer-term media options, putting to the good her television experience in senior roles at Sky and BT. Sitting on the RMG board would have been at odds with such a strategy.
The Jockey Club want Bushell to spend more time with her employers and to scale back time spent on external racing boards and committees.
Given the dire financial situation racecourses now find themselves in, it’s no surprise that she should now concentrate on the day job. But you can’t help feeling that she’ll be nothing if not interested in the Jockey Club’s future media alliances.
What to think?
These scribblings have said before that it has a, probably short-sighted, stance when it comes to the utterings of winning-most trainer Mark Johnston – that of adopting the opposite view when he ventures forth an opinion.
It was interesting then to listen to his Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4 last week when presenter Lauren Laverne suggested to him that he is someone who likes an argument. He didn’t deny it, and replied that he sometimes argued a point with which he didn’t necessarily agree so that the point could be effectively made. The word arrogance sprang to mind.
I now don’t know when Johnston makes a point if he’s genuinely for it, or playing devil’s advocate, and what to think accordingly. But he did choose Fleetwood Mac, so rare agreement there.
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♦ ITV get the Royal Ascot balance just about right http://wp.me/p8e3Dl-4f9