Media rights revenue key to survival of Irish racecourses during Covid-19 pandemic

Horse Racing Ireland’s chief executive says convincing fans to return is next challenge

There have been estimates of up to €65 million in lost commercial income to Irish racing generally due to the pandemic. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

There have been estimates of up to €65 million in lost commercial income to Irish racing generally due to the pandemic. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

 

Media rights revenue has been described as “absolutely key” to the survival of Ireland’s 26 racecourses during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

After 22 months of a combination of behind closed doors racing and restricted spectator sizes, Friday’s Government announcement of the scrapping of restrictions has been greeted with widespread relief in the sport.

There have been estimates of up to €65 million in lost commercial income to Irish racing generally due to the pandemic. That is despite additional support of about €13 million from Government as well as state subsidies such as rates waivers and the pandemic unemployment payment.

Horse Racing Ireland’s chief executive said on Sunday the biggest challenge in 2022 will be to convince customers to go racing again.

“People have got used to consuming the sport in the last year and a half in a different way.

“What we want to do is to make sure that people see it (the racecourse) as an attractive place to go back to. It will be about making people realise it’s a safe place to come and the same as they had before. That will be the biggest challenge,” commented Suzanne Eade.

The major increase in the streaming of live racing pictures throughout the pandemic was part of a broadcast picture hailed as vital to the economic survival of the country’s racecourses.

Unable to welcome any race-goers through the gates for long periods of time, it was media rights income that proved crucial to tracks.

“It is hard to overstate how important it was. It was vital. Without that we would have been in big trouble,” said the chief executive of the Association of Irish Racecourses, Paddy Walsh, on Sunday.

“As it is, before Covid, the media rights money was 50 per cent of our collective revenue. It’s probably one of the most important sources of income we have in any event. But certainly during the pandemic it was absolutely key,” he added.

The current media rights deal with Sports Information Services (SIS) and the Racecourse Media Group (RMG) is believed to be worth in the region of €40 million a year to Ireland’s racetracks.

Increased streaming and more international demand for pictures during the worst of the Coronavirus pandemic was vital while racing action took place behind closed doors.

Fears of racetracks being forced to close during the worst of the lockdowns weren’t realised.

“It’s certainly not as bad as it could have been. We could have lost a lot of racecourses,” Walsh said.

“There was no one sitting on hoards of cash to see them through an event like this. It was a real struggle. There was a time there when any number could have (closed.)

“We had no idea how long this thing was going to last, whether we were going to be able to keep racing behind closed doors.

“We managed to keep some money flowing and keep people in jobs which is important because you could see in latter times it wasn’t the pandemic that was killing things, it was lack of staff.

“Not every pub is going to open up again and that could have been us,” he added.

Walsh said it was too early to financially quantify the impact of the pandemic but that it wouldn’t be uniform.

“Racecourses with bigger festival days will suffer the most financially. But there will be other compensation factors.

“If you take two of the bigger festival courses, Punchestown and Galway, they both had vaccination and testing facilities there. I don’t know what the economic benefits were but there would have been some offsetting there.

“So you can see there are a myriad of factors. I don’t think you will have an across the board percentage in the sector. It will be very varied and that’s another reason why it will take so long to put together.

“The overall effect will be negative but how big a negative I don’t know. I think it’s great we have all racecourses still there. I’m not sure when the dust settles whether every business will be able to say that.

“I think that we were able to keep racing throughout was a positive and a positive thing for racing. We got a little more exposure when other sports weren’t as lucky,” Walsh said.

He added that talks on a new media rights arrangement for after the current deal runs out at the end of 2023 are only at an “initial stage.”

Uninterrupted

Suzanne Eade said that racing continuing uninterrupted after its resumption on June 8th of 2020 was hugely important

“Unlike other sports we didn’t really have obstructions to keep going.

“I was thinking the other day what it could have been if we hadn’t been able to keep going and it doesn’t bear thinking about in terms of the horse population and everyone working in the industry,” she said.

On a practical level the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board said on Sunday there were no major changes to the logistics of the weekend action at Thurles and Navan.

It also confirmed an overflow room for jockeys will be in place at Gowran for Thursday’s Thyestes Chase programme.

However one visible sign of the new regime will be no requirement for jockeys, trainers and other personnel to wear face masks in parade-rings.

There is also no longer a requirement to complete an IHRB health screening questionnaire before going racing.

“We will continue to deal with tracks on a track by track basis and on a race-day basis depending on what crowds are there and what facility requirements are.

“We still need to be conscious it hasn’t just disappeared overnight. We will be still monitoring the situation in terms of what tracks have appropriate facilities or not, and we may have to make some alterations in terms of layouts. But we’re getting close to normality,” an IHRB spokesman said.

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