Horse racing as a sport has long been associated with a few stereotypical concepts, notably tradition, pomp, ceremony, conviviality – and inevitably betting,
No other sport comes close to matching the seemingly symbiotic relationship there is between racing and the bookmaker, and gambling often dominates the media coverage and public perceptions.
News bulletins of the calendar’s great festivals regularly centre on the money made (or lost) by the industry and, for the average spectator, placing a few bets is considered an essential part of a day at the races.
However, one company, HBA Media, the UK-based media rights agency that focuses on horse racing, is looking to change the way the sport is viewed.
Henry Birtles, the agency’s founder and chief executive, and Frank Sale, its managing director, are in the process of trying to create a more joined-up global media presentation for the sport which would focus more on the stories behind the racing, and less on betting.
Birtles, who founded the agency in 2006 with the express intention of creating “the sport’s pre-eminent rights-holder and producer”, has previous experience at Sunset & Vine, the UK-based TV sports production and media company, while Sale has a broadcast media background, with stints at the UK’s Sky Sports and Fox Sports in USA.
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Birtles tells Sportcal that a long-term goal is to “unify the sport as a media entity internationally… Amalgamating the product we can present to broadcasters, producing a number of showcase and elite races under the same banner, in partnership with one overall global media organisation.”
HBA Media produces, presents and distributes races all over the world, working with the likes of the UK’s Ascot Racecourse, the Japan Racing Association, the Singapore Turf Club, the German Jockey Club, Italian Racing and the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
Birtles believes bringing the sport together would “showcase the best horses and tell the best stories from around the world, not just in traditional countries.”
He adds: “We don’t want people to be watching a race and automatically associate that with betting and numbers, where they’re simply supporting a nameless horse.”
Birtles does however acknowledge that at least in financial terms “the wagering side of horse racing is still absolutely essential.”
What we’re looking to do is make the sport more about the great athletes and stories involved in the racing
Asked how the end goal of unifying horse racing’s broadcast media coverage might be achieved, Birtles says: “From our point of view, it’s about getting the sport’s broadcast production under one umbrella… taking elite races, packaging them up in the same format, to create a situation of global familarity where viewers all over the world know that the horse racing is on.”
The idea, which is said to have been broached in discussions with stakeholders across the globe would, it is claimed, “reach out to non-avid fans to help create a new generation of racing enthusiasts”.
The top races would incorporate a similar broadcast style, which, HBA Media feels would improve the presentation of the racing calendar, and give it more context in the mind of a casual viewer.
It would not compromise domestic media arrangements, but is instead offering a blueprint for production of top events going forward, and appeal globally.
Birtles adds that in the future “perhaps we’d have a major over-the-top platform as the sport’s global media partner.”
HBA Media senses support from the industry, and talks were under way before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which has largely shut down horse racing around the world.
While the agency would appear to have grandiose ambitions, it is establishing itself as a significant player in the sport.
HBA Media is now responsible for the media rights distribution of over 2,000 separate races, and has been on an upward curve in the last year and a half, securing rights to some of the hottest properties, culminating with the new Saudi Cup, now racing’s richest event, and the prestigious Royal Ascot meeting.
For both events, HBA Media is able to provide a variety of different-length programming for broadcasters, plus post-race highlights and coverage of the cultural aspects.
HBA Media has a five-year deal to market Ascot’s global media rights, and the agreement with the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia is also multi-year, covering worldwide broadcast and multi-platform distribution rights.
Birtles and Sale seem happy with how the inaugural $20-million Saudi Cup went under their watch in February, having secured 27 broadcast partners, a figure they are looking to build upon in 2021.
While the agency has had rights to notable races before, notably Australia’s Melbourne Cup, Birtles agrees that “in the last 18 months, the company has definitely grown, we’ve moved into central London… we’ve been on a real upward trajectory.
“If someone had told me 25 years ago that my company would be handling the rights for Royal Ascot I would have pinched myself … that has definitely been a long-term goal for us.”
Although HBA Media’s most eye-catching expansion has come recently, Birtles points to a move seven years ago as being the catalyst.
In 2013, the agency secured the rights to the Breeders’ Cup, the high-profile US race, in an initial two-year deal that has been renewed ever since.
Birtles says that deal “saw people within the racing world take notice… It was a seminal moment, and did gain us a greater acceptance from the market.
“Who’s to say that Ascot would have come knocking if we hadn’t done a good job with the Melbourne Cup and the Breeders’?”
Nor is HBA Media resting on its laurels, and, even in the current climate, conversations about taking on new races are ongoing.
Birtles says the company has also registered an office in Dubai and is looking to open one in Saudi Arabia, showing the extent of their ambitions.
In terms of emerging from the current shutdown, Birtles and Sale are confident of horse racing’s enduring resilience, and its appeal to broadcasters, sponsors and fans.
Sale says: “We do see some shoots of opportunity… Quite a lot of our races in certain countries are still going on behind closed doors.”
While HBA Media has taken some measures, it has not furloughed any staff, either full-time or freelance, and Birtles is optimistic that “the combination of what rights-holders, organisers and broadcasters propose will ensure that the sport stays durable.”
The agency is in regular contact with clients, broadcasters and event organisers over potential next steps, and the official line is that it will work with them and other bodies to adjust to ‘the new norm’.
Horse racing is resuming in Germany and France in the coming days, and similar moves are afoot in the UK, although events will initially be behind closed doors, and Royal Ascot has already confirmed that if it does go ahead in June, it will do so without spectators.
Aside from anything else, Birtles is now confident that “the people who run the federations these days are much more progressive, modern, and up-to-date”, and that decisions around the sport’s future welfare are now in good hands.
The people who run the federations these days are much more progressive, modern and up-to-date
However, the HBA Media chief believes that the sport has not been properly promoted until now, saying that “people who presided over horse racing in past decades were almost grateful when it was covered on television, they were almost apologetic about it… and effectively gave away many of the rights.
“In doing so, they devalued some of the media rights.”
He suggests that, in USA especially, “the attitude was, if they thought racing was going to be shown live on TV all over the country, then fewer people would come to the track.”
Birtles says that “racing hasn’t always been packaged up properly for viewers as a live sporting event, on an international scale.”
He adds: “For years, the racing fraternity thought nothing else mattered apart from horse racing, and that all the viewers would be immediately interested in and knowledgeable about their sport. They were massively wrong in that.”
“The way it was presented didn’t necessarily get the right message across to the audience we needed to win over, and still need to win over.”
Sale believes that until recently the sport’s hierarchy would not have been conducive to the new technology and digital innovation that HBA Media is planning to use to revolutionise the image of the sport, notably alignment with OTT content providers and direct-to-consumer TV platforms.
Birtles believes that in order to “shed that traditional, untrendy view of racing, things are going to have to be produced differently. We have to aim at a younger audience.”
The agency has shown its commitment to OTT this year with a trial run, partnering with US platform FloSports for two major races.
FloSports showed the Saudi Cup and Australia’s Golden Slipper to its subscribers.
The tie-up is regarded as having been a success, with Sale saying: “The hope is very much to keep that momentum going… the FloSports partnership is absolutely the way we see things going in future.
“OTT is very exciting for our whole industry, because it creates more opportunities for sports that aren’t generally considered mainstream.”
The FloSports initiative was the result of a collaboration with Racecourse Media Group, another UK-based organisation which produces and distributes horse racing, and HBA Media sees tie-ups between the major rights-holders as important to connecting with OTT services.
Although nothing has been confirmed and negotiations are still very much ongoing, the agency has been speaking to various potential partners, including Amazon, DAZN, and Eleven Sport. Twitter is also now involved, having offered coverage of the Saudi Cup across the Middle East.
Birtles says: “This shows that the appetite’s there – it’s now all about producing it the right way.”