After years of decline, racing in Britain has a spring in its step once again. Part, if not all, the credit is due to the marketing and promotional initiative that started off as Racing For Change in 2009. One year after it was officially made a permanent entity - and rebranded as Great British Racing - Chief Executive Rod Street tells Chris Smith in the first part of a four-part feature why it was necessary, how success has been achieved, and what challenges lie ahead.
Rod Street can allow himself a quiet smile these days, nothing too expressive, nothing particularly jubilant, but a steady beam of satisfaction nonetheless. Street, you see, was handed what some believed to be the most poisoned chalice in British racing just five years ago – and he’s lived to tell the tale.
By 2008, the sport’s health was in serious decline. The British Horseracing Authority decided something needed to be done - and done fast - and Racing For Change, a “project” to breathe new life into British racing, was born.
Street, former managing director of racetrack operators Northern Racing, was put in charge. The brief basically was to try to fly in the face of the worldwide trend that has seen racing slowly slide in the public’s affections since before the turn of the millennium. Some might have called it “Mission: Impossible.” Street had to try to make racing more popular.
Not only was Racing For Change up against a crippling economic downturn and the gradual erosion of the sport’s place in the hearts of minds of the public, it had also to face two other not inconsiderable barriers to progress – deeply ingrained conservative attitudes across the industry and unrelenting cynicism among a significant and influential chunk of the media and other racing insiders.
You could have been forgiven for assuming that the initiative – not the first attempt by racing’s rulers to paper over the cracks that had been appearing with more and more regularity in the sport’s wellbeing - was destined for a quick and painful demise, like most of its predecessors. But Street and his team just put their heads down, shrugged off the barbs, and got on with it. And very slowly, barely perceptibly at first, things did indeed begin to change.
“When Racing For Change began, it didn’t come out of the blue,” Street said. “It was driven by the industry, who were looking at a few signs that were telling them there were issues. We were paying to be on the television, market share in betting was receding year on year, attendances were flat, we were losing space in newspaper pages, local and regional media cover had all but died off. The writing was on the wall that racing was looking sick.”
Five years on, the situation is very different.
“It was only just over a year ago that we were still paying to be on [terrestrial] TV,” Street said. “We were paying Channel 4, and all of a sudden we are now selling our rights again for a few million quid [pounds]. But the swing from paying a few million to getting a few million is a big swing. And I think that that demonstrates that the broadcasters have looked at racing and seen that it’s actually sorted itself out and is more relevant.”
So how did the team do it? Their efforts were based on four central “pillars of activity.”
The first was a major attempt to increase public interest.
“When Racing For Change kicked off in 2009, one of its leading themes was we don’t do anywhere near good enough when it comes to telling our stories to the wider public,” Street explained. “Racing’s PR is very much confined to the racing pages of daily newspapers, and yet we’re a sport that’s rich in stories, rich in character and colour and heritage. And I think we’ve done a great job in the last few years of telling our stories to a different audience.”
And the second pillar?
“Leading with your best products, the premier element of the sport,” he said. “There was a view that in racing you have 1,400 fixtures a year, you race virtually every day of the year, bar now Christmas Day and Easter Sunday, and to the wider public they’re things running round a track and we don’t often do a good job of showing what the good stuff is. And yet we’ve got two dedicated racing channels, we’ve got Channel 4, we’ve had BBC – does racing do what other sports do and say ‘this is the premium stuff’?
“Arguably we do it better over the jumps, where I think Cheltenham provides a very natural storyline to the season,” he continued. “So you win the Charlie Hall Chase [a big race at Yorkshire jumps track Wetherby] in October and you’re likely to be asked by the reporter what Cheltenham prospects there are. So there’s a road to Cheltenham. But the flat was an area of concern.”
That concern led to Racing For Change’s most visible achievement – Champions Day.
“John Gosden some years ago came out and said very publicly that he was concerned about the future of flat racing in Britain,” Street said. “He was concerned about the Derby losing its relevance, and so when we started there was a big focus on the flat, which of course led to Champions Series and Champions Day. And that’s been a big achievement because I think, going back to when this all began, there was not only an awful lot of scepticism about getting this off the ground but also a lot of negativity towards it. It’s amazing that with some industry co-ordination, some sheer bloody-mindedness and some good sponsorship we’ve created this day, which has very quickly become a very, very important day in the calendar.”
The sponsorship, of course, was hugely significant.
“It’s brought in a new sponsor, Qipco,” Street said. “It was serendipitous that Qipco were around at the time we launched, but of course, as one or two people have rightly pointed out, it was great that we had something to sell. Had they been knocking on the door of British racing and we didn’t have a product, they might have moved on.”
And what about those other two pillars? Great British Racing can point to annual racecourse attendances now getting past six million to illustrate progress on No. 4 - improving the raceday experience. But No. 3 is still a concern.
“I suppose in terms of disappointments, I think probably the biggie, and we still haven’t cracked it, is our relevance to betting,” he said. “While we’re doing everything we can to make racing front and centre, it’s been against a background of what’s been a loss in market share for the last 20 years.”
So the battle goes on. But the successes have been significant enough to make Racing For Change a permanent entity. Twelve months ago, that permanence became official as it was renamed Great British Racing, also taking over responsibility (as Great British Racing International) for promoting British racing overseas from British Bloodstock Marketing.
“I think it would have been a failure had we still in 10 years’ time been saying Racing For Change,” Street said. “We needed to demonstrate that there’d been some change. So we felt that Great British Racing was permanent. It did what it said on the tin in that we think British racing is great. What’s telling is that it’s been so readily accepted. We launched Great British Racing last March and every stakeholder group, be it BHA, be it owners, be it racecourses, all seem to say ‘yeah, we like that, we believe in it.’
“In very general terms, it’s nice that we’re now kind of in the getting-on-with-it phase,” he added. “I think the first three years in what was Racing For Change was constant reporting in to the industry, hearts and minds, reminding people of why we needed to do it. It’s much less distracting now that we’ve actually got a team of people and they can just get on with it and they know what the job is. But no complacency. The minute we think we’ve cracked it is when we fall over again.”