28 September, 2022

The holy grail of the sport

Lee Richardson asked what’s next for horseracing in our previous article; Racecourse Media Group Director of Marketing Clive Cottrell speaks exclusively to Gambling Insider Editor Tim Poole about attempts to bring the sport to a younger audience.

Can you tell us about your background in the gambling industry? Have you always been a horseracing fan?

My father was a massive racing fan and used to take us racing, so I picked up on that vibe many years ago. I started off in marketing at a financial services company in my first role. Then I worked in a direct mail business for collectible plates, figurines and dolls. I met my current boss at that organisation; at a subsequent job he joined Coral and there was an opportunity to join him, where I spent six years with Coral, Gala Coral and launched Gala Bingo online. After that, I did a year at PartyGaming as Head of Brand. My boss then moved here and there was an opening after a couple of years to look after the commercial TV business, where we sell Racing TV into pubs and clubs. I did that for a year and was offered the Director of Marketing job after that, and have been here 11 and a half years since then. It’s a dream job really, as horseracing’s my passion.

When the pandemic struck, we were all at Cheltenham speculating about racing being curtailed. But when it became a reality, it was heartbreaking to think our volumes of viewers could disappear overnight. Obviously, we didn’t race for a couple of months. We were quite quick to tell our ongoing members they could halt their payments while there was no racing. But, to our surprise, the members that did churn came back immediately when behind-closed-doors racing returned – and we reached a subscription number of 65,000.

Can you talk us through Racecourse Media Group (RMG) and the company’s role within the industry?

RMG, I’ve personally been here 12 and a half years; it was set up almost 20 years ago now as the media rights business for the main shareholder racecourses in Britain. Really, the objective is to generate revenue off the back of those media rights – we’ve been doing that pretty successfully and we now represent 35 of the British racecourses, including the Jockey Club and some of the large independents, like York and Goodwood. And we recently acquired the rights for all of the Irish racing as well. We generate revenue in a variety of different ways. Historically, the bedrock was the paid TV business, which we still run and has 62,000 members, all of whom pay their £25 ($29.52) a month subscription fee. And it was also about the LBO rights, which we sell the pictures into for the high street bookmakers.

But more recently we’ve been working to provide live streams for our partners on their websites, which is the biggest growth area. We also generate quite a lot of our revenue through international betting, providing pictures around the world to circa 20 territories. More recently, we’re looking at how else we can support our shareholder racecourses – all of our fees go to shareholders. One way we were looking at how we can broaden the appeal of the sport, accessing a younger audience – which is the Holy Grail for the sport – is social media. There seems to be a bit of a void on social media for racing. It’s never going to be easy to get a young audience that’s completely new into racing. We looked at different ways to achieve that and talking on platforms they engage in is the first step. But while ITV do a great job of showcasing the live sport, they don’t necessarily gauge the essence of what a live raceday is like for those who actually attend. There’s a broader aspect to it than the live sport, there’s the fashion side of things, the hospitality side and the social side.

Maybe we are best positioned to do this, having the access we do. The Racing TV brand is a strong brand but its limitations are it only really appeals to avid horseracing fans. So we thought we needed to create a new brand – and that brand is #raceday. We thought the best way of doing that is through utilising influencers, those who already have significant fanbases and communities on their social media accounts. We started to use people like Frankie Foster, who was on Love Island, and Amy Christophers, who was on Married at First Sight last year. If we can portray them having a great time on a racecourse to their fans – and get their fans to consider horseracing – maybe that’s half the battle. It’s the first step.

What kind of numbers have you generated?

We launched June/July 2021 and have, since then, tried to access new audiences – and have had a lot of fun doing it. To date, we’ve generated something in the region of 45 million views on TikTok, with 36,000 followers and a 5% engagement on those views. While we’re still learning, we feel we are starting to get some traction – and the great thing is we’ve got the support of the industry. Most people feel it’s the right thing to do.

In terms of the influencers, do you target anyone specific – is it TikTok in particular or did you try it with Instagram etc?

No, initially we started out with Instagram. But TikTok’s rise has been dramatic and it became more evident that there was a greater opportunity on TikTok. That’s where we’ve seen a lot of the strong growth since the turn of the year. In terms of the talent and influencers, it’s quite an interesting one. We ideally want talent that has some interest or involvement in racing – but it’s not a prerequisite. Someone like Frankie Foster, while he’s known for his Love Island appearance, was brought up in Cheltenham, is used to going to the Festival, loves horseracing and knows a lot about the subject matter. Someone like Amy Christophers loves sport and is best known for her involvement in broadcasting on football – but enjoyed her day at the races. And we actually quite liked the dynamic of someone who knows their racing and someone who doesn’t.

But we also use it as an opportunity to nurture new talent. Twitter, as a platform, is the main domain for horseracing fans. There are quite a few people on Twitter who are striving to be part of the horseracing broadcast media. So it’s quite easy to pinpoint people, like Zoe Smith, who had no experience within horseracing but was passionate about it. We found and gave her an opportunity, and she’s subsequently got a job in the industry. So there are some people we use who don’t quite have the critical mass of fanbases but have got a passion for the sport.

What are the main obstacles you face and how have you found the reception so far? You mentioned your engagement levels but, given how tough it is to attract new audiences into racing, are you making the level of progress you need?

Yeah, I think so. As we alluded to before, it’s not an easy task. Unless you’ve been brought up with horseracing, it’s something that is not the easiest to understand. There are quite a lot of different criteria to follow in the sport. But I don’t think that means you can’t have a nice day out. I think it is that taking of people on a journey – and learning every time you do go.  What we wanted to do was create content that is engaging, watchable and fun, to present racing as something that’s a fun day out and a great social occasion. I think we’ve achieved that, in part, but we’ve only been doing it for a year. There’s more to come and we’re still learning but I’m pretty pleased with the start we’ve made.

I would actually have to say, having been at Cheltenham and a baseball game in California this year, I found the baseball a little trickier to follow than I thought I would. The racing, however, was more exciting, in my opinion…

It’s different, isn’t it? You’re sat in your seat at a baseball game. But there’s an opportunity to get around a racecourse. You can make your choice about whether you want to go to the paddock, the stalls or if you’re happy sitting at  the bar! Our job is to convey that variety you can have at the racecourse, which others may not be aware of.

Looking at content that goes viral, outside of the finish line at a horserace, there is perhaps less of an opportunity for a ‘TikTokable’ or ‘Insta’ moment than a sport like football... with crazy tackles, 30-yard screamers or spectacular own goals. Was that a factor in you choosing to emphasise what can happen ‘off the track,’ so to speak?

Absolutely. There are examples of thrills and spills that happen during a race that isn’t necessarily the finish but you’re right. One of our most successful pieces of content to date was watching the race with some connections – the owners and the trainers. Just to experience their emotions and delight – that’s the winning ingredient for social media: being able to portray that emotion and raw sense of excitement, which racing gives you. Perhaps a traditional broadcaster isn’t necessarily able to show that – which is something that appealed about this project.

On the business side, do you have any gauge on conversions into betting, but also conversions into horseracing attendances? Is it a costlier method of marketing via social media?

Not so much. We film with an iPhone and we contain costs pretty well. The talent we use are invested in the project, so might command higher fees for doing other things, but they really want to do this and enjoy it. So it isn’t that costly for us; we see it as an investment at the moment. Unlike our usual history where we need to generate revenue off the back of rights, this is seen as more of a long-term play. Ultimately, there will be a commercial imperative down the line, which might be through data collection or sponsorship. But for now we are focused on growing the platform and the viewership.

Finally, we haven’t had the Gambling Act review in the UK yet. After so many delays, what are your thoughts on the review process thus far?

The White Paper has been coming out for months and months now, and there is probably bigger uncertainty than ever before in terms of when it will happen, as well as what’s in it. It would be difficult to speculate right now on what this will be and when. It’s hugely important to horseracing, depending on the measures that are in it and whether they would bring a risk to the sport. Some stakeholders have quoted a potential £100m risk to the industry, which is worrying. RMG’s standpoint is that we absolutely advocate supporting the Government in their efforts to minimise gambling-related harm. But, at the same time, we want that to be done in a measured, proven and effective way – rather than blanket measures that may or may not have a benefit in terms of reducing gambling-related harm.

We want new initiatives to be evidence-based. It’s difficult to suggest that some of the measures to have been mooted will actually achieve that goal. We’ve been pretty active, actually, as an organisation around safer gambling. While we don’t take bets, we need to recognise that there are people who may be at risk from gambling-related harm that watch our content. And so, as a business, we’ve developed safer gambling policies, safer employee gambling policies. We’re very careful that we have the adequate signposting in our broadcasting and have signed up with Responsible Affiliates in Gambling, which means we go through an audit once a year. We absolutely support responsible gambling but we encourage anything that’s come in to be evidence-based, rather than imposing restrictions on personal freedom and choice – that perhaps don’t make any difference.