Magners and the Jockey Club go to court over unpaid fees
Three years ago today, the British Jockey Club announced a new sponsor for its most prestigious Jumps race - the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Heralded as a triumph to have attracted a blue chip name outside the bookmaker ranks, cider brand Magners, part of the Bulmers Group in the UK, strode the scene, looking to grow a larger market share at the course at the expense of Guinness, and more widely across the UK, through the brand association with a much-loved event.
Sadly, it has all gone terribly wrong.
After a successful debut, year 2 was marked by the Covid epidemic. The Cheltenham Festival was one of the last major events to take place before the world shut down for several months, and whilst over 250,000 attended to see Al Boum Photo win the race for the Closutton team of Willie Mullins, press interest was as acutely interested in the rapid spread of the virus, and whether it had been right to continue.
Last year, Magners declined to lend its name to the 2021 race, citing reputational damage as a result of the 2020 event. The Jockey Club is now suing Magners for withdrawing its sponsorship for the outstanding 2 years of the agreement up to and including 2022.
The Magners withdrawal is hardly a surprise. You'd have to live at the North Pole these past 16 months not to appreciate the impact of Covid on the hospitality trade, although this has never been cited as a reason for backing out. It doesn;t take a genius to realize however that the brand is drawing in its horns on the back of the last few months.
But reputational damage cuts both ways: aborting a high profile sponsorship a year in casts doubt on the host venue as much as the sponsoring brand, which partly explains the Jockey Club's position, in itself compromised by the cessation of racing and behind closed doors stricture on its finances.
It isn't the first time a brand has extricated itself from a sponsorship deal, but generally the only winners from a battle in the courts are lawyers. And as racecourses across western Europe will corroborate, finding sponsorship for racing is becoming increasingly hard, exacerbated by the Covid crisis, but only re-emphasizing a trend that has become all too apparent over the past 10 years or more.
The UK market in particular is vulnerable to the loss of heavyweight sponsors partly because of its business model, reliant upon spectator footfall, but also because the healthy spectator interest in the sport has fuelled consistent live terrestrial TV coverage, which is not replicated across Europe at large. This visibility has enabled racecourses both to promote the sport more effectively as a mainstream leisure activity, but also to command sizeable sponsorship commitments from brands attracted by the audience profile and scale. These are the envy of European racecourses, but they carry higher risk, as this example illustrates all too well.
However, UK Jump racing is rapidly approaching a crossroads, where betting brands have annexed title to virtually every televised race. It's a process in which racecourses have been complicit; bookmaker brands have been both the first and last port of call to underwrite major (and often not so major) race funds, and have often done so very willingly. But there is no credibility in denying that in the UK, "horseracing is all about betting".
Quite simply, it has become so.
It's time for Jump racing across the western hemisphere to think boldly about its proposition to interested non-bookmaker brands. Horseracing should be a very desirable market: highly affluent cliques of 35-55 year olds, homeowners, and a sensible gender balance.
I say internationally, because unlike flat racing where breeding enterprises can grow an international market, Jump racing is predominant in just 3 nations - Britain, Ireland and France, two of which are major exporters of bloodstock to the third. Gathering these together to protect and nurture a more international dimension to the sport has to be in everyone's best interests but would also create a fresh new proposition to build around. In a world that is getting smaller with every click of a mouse, this essentially parochial branch of the sport needs to rethink how to make itself attractive beyond its current following.
This is a conundrum with no easy answers. But the thinking has to start, and soon.