At Ascot Racecourse in Berkshire last weekend, dozens of horses and riders competed for the largest prize purse in racing at the British Champions Day. Here the sport’s great and good gathered for the finale of the British Flat racing season. But away from the winner’s circle, television viewing figures for racing are lagging behind other sports. Can a new Championship Horse Racing (CHR) modernise the sport - or has the horse bolted the stable?
ITV, the current holders of media rights to horse racing in the UK, paid £30m for a four-year hold on terrestrial coverage of the sport, Nonetheless, earlier this year it saw a 14% drop in the peak audience for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, one of the biggest events in the racing calendar. More broadly, audiences have dramatically fallen since the rights left the BBC – where Champions Day once attracted 1.1 million viewers. After that, it sat with ad-funded Channel 4 before climbing aboard with private network ITV.
Amid a declining viewership, and a threat to the funding from the betting advertisers that the sport is traditionally associated with, the racing establishment has backed a modernized tournament that they hope can reinvent the sport for modern audiences.
Championship Horse Racing (CHR) aims to reinvent racing as a spectator sport, with a new tournament called The Series featuring sponsor-aligned teams, racecourse entertainment and a more accessible format. According to Richard FitzGerald, who is the chief executive of racing media titans Racecourse Media Group, “The Series promises to be a compelling spectacle for viewers and has the potential to take racing to a whole new audience.”
The chief executive of CHR, Jeremy Wray, describes the concept in similarly ambitious terms. He says: “This is a fantastic chance for racing to lead the way in changing how people watch sport, both live and in terms of bite-size, interactive content. The viewers will become fans and engage with brands like never before, on a global scale. Furthermore, everyone in racing benefits, be they stable staff, owners or jockeys.”
The new tournament’s visual identity was created “from scratch” by creative shop Red Bee, which was previously responsible for big-ticket brand identities like comedy-focused digital channel Dave and BBC Sport as well as relaunches of major media brands like BBC One and Pinewood Studios. According to Christopher Godfree, head of client services at the agency, the aim is to revolutionise the way viewers interact with the sport, without revolutionising the sport itself.“
He says: “CHR wants to make [racing] like a cup final between Manchester United and Chelsea FC. You know what's going on from the colours, the sense of competition, and even if you're not a football fan you can understand from context. They're looking for quick cues that audiences can use to pick up the drama. They're taking it from a niche sport to a broader audience.”
Godfree’s explanation of the CHR proposition and strategy draws freely on inspiration from event-focused competitions like Formula One, Twenty20 cricket and the Six Nations. “They want to appeal to existing race audiences but also expand it to the people who join in for main events, like the World Cup and the Olympics,” he says.
Much of CHR’s focus is on securing big-ticket brands to sponsor its new teams, riders and mounts. So far, the bookies are backing airline Emirates, watchmaker Longines and the Qatar Investment & Projects Development Holding Company (QIPCO). “People would refer to the names by the brand and pledge their allegiance to teams depending on the brand, much like they do with Formula One,” Godfree explains.
Red Bee was briefed with making CHR look like “a tech brand, rather than a horse racing brand.” It’s a stark contrast to the typical branding around the sport, which emphasises heritage, tradition and storied champions of races past. In fact, horses are barely featured on CHR’s website, which instead features crowd shots of millennial audiences, an austere aqua and black colour scheme, and a recurring ‘racing line’ motif that links together the different elements of the new event. Godfree explains: “The logo is like a horse gurning and pulling on its halters. It's about small subtle things to give it momentum.”
For Red Bee, the chance to create an entirely new sports brand was freeing. “Often, when you come to a big brand's brief there will be creative guidelines or preconceptions of what a brand should be… [but] CHR was were very open. We were worried it might be crazy not to have a horse in the logo, but it was happy with the way it suggested the racing world. Work-wise it was quite liberating.”
With the first races due to commence in August 2019, CHR’s marketing plans are still in their infancy – but Godfree suggests that TV will be crucial. ITV is rumoured to be interested in the broadcast rights for CHR – a prospect he says “would be incredible”. “It'll bring new audiences to the broadcaster, to the brands and to the horse racing industry,” he predicts.
15 years ago, club cricket shed its traditional image of shire ales and arcane umpiring with the introduction of the exciting – and brand-friendly – Twenty20 format. And while CHR has a few more furlongs to cover in its pursuit of a modernized version of racing, with the past form of Red Bee for sporting brands and the support of key stakeholders in the sport, it’s in with a decent chance.