Talking Horses: Delayed renewal of ITV deal begins to raise concerns

This time last year it looked like the biggest certainty in racing. The first half of ITV Racing’s four-year deal for the sport’s terrestrial coverage had, by general consent, worked well for both parties. Viewing figures were strong for the showpiece events and above expectations for more run-of-the-mill coverage on ITV4. A fresh four-year contract from 2021 seemed, in racing terms, to be over the last at Aintree and around the Elbow, with only a loose horse for company.

So why, with 11 months left on the current deal, has it still not crossed the line? Is one side or the other pushing its luck or overplaying its hand? And is there a danger that, with time running out, ITV will decide that it needs some certainty and take its money elsewhere?

Few are in any doubt about the value of racing’s high profile on free‑to-air TV. ITV or ITV4 broadcasts live racing, on average, nearly one day in every four throughout the year, including every Saturday afternoon. It boosts betting turnover – which is estimated to be four times greater if a race is on terrestrial TV – and sponsorship revenue. The biggest events, such as Cheltenham and the Grand National, benefit from cross-promotion elsewhere in the ITV schedule. There is also the less quantifiable benefit that comes from regular free-to-air exposure on a mainstream channel and the ongoing sense of connection between the British public and its second‑biggest spectator sport.

The absence of any meaningful comment from anyone involved does little to ease the nerves. “We can’t comment on the nature of commercial discussions,” a spokesperson for Jockey Club Racecourses said on Thursday. “However, we remain hopeful of a positive outcome for all concerned.”

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Ascot, meanwhile, suggests that “negotiations are ongoing and good-natured as all parties look to get to the same place”. Which is all fine and good, but can’t they just hurry up and get there a little more quickly?

No one wants to say anything that could set things back or be taken the wrong way, either by the other side or their own. The holders of racing’s terrestrial rights include major operations such as JCR and Arena Racing Company (Arc), whose interests do not always coincide, as well as big “independent” courses such as Ascot, Goodwood, York and Newbury. They have much to discuss between themselves in addition to nailing down the details with ITV.

For many outside looking in, it feels wrong for racing to be perhaps 11 months and one failed negotiation away from the calamitous loss of free‑to‑air coverage. Inevitably, fingers have been pointed in recent months. Ascot’s reluctance to take a smaller share of the proceeds was initially blamed for holding things up, though the issue is now thought to have been resolved.

ITV’s attention, meanwhile, was focused elsewhere for much of the latter part of last year, first on its coverage of the Rugby World Cup and then on an unsuccessful bid for the rights for the football Champions League. BT’s winning bid trumped Sky and ITV in November, though ITV could, in theory, still buy a package from BT to show matches from the start of next season.

More recently, JCR has been suggested by some as offering the last main stumbling block to an agreement. Delia Bushell, a former executive with BT and Sky, joined the Jockey Club as its new chief executive last September and, given her background in media rights negotiation, has presumably been going through the contract.

The encouraging news from both sides seems to be that money is not the ultimate issue. Instead, it is the finer detail of what ITV will get for its cash and how that could affect other media partners, including the sport’s own RacingTV. If such details are of particular concern to JCR and Ascot – which, between them, stage Cheltenham, the Grand National, the Derby and the Royal meeting – it would hardly be the greatest surprise.

A renewal of ITV’s contract still seems highly likely. Whether it will get over the line before this year’s Grand National winner, though, is still anyone’s guess.