Sponsorship drop 'very serious', says UK Racecourse Association chief

David Thorpe, the chairman of the Racecourse Association in the UK, believes sponsorship for this year could be down 40% as the recession filters through and impacts on the racing industry.

David Thorpe, the chairman of the Racecourse Association in the UK, believes sponsorship for this year could be down 40% as the recession filters through and impacts on the racing industry.

Thorpe was speaking at the second British Horseracing conference in Westminster and described the current state of affairs as "very serious".

"The economic situation is working against us but the racecourses aren't going to take it lying down," he said.

"They have to be creative and innovative with their sponsorship but it is a circular argument in that we have to have to get the broadcast and terrestrial television rights to make it attractive."

However, Nigel Payne of the Horseracing Sponsors Association challenged Thorpe's assertion and claims the worst case scenario would see sponsorship fall 20%.

Betfair recently took over backing of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot but the Derby is currently without a sponsor, as is the high-profile King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.

First to take the stage at the conference was British Horseracing Authority chairman Paul Roy who acknowledged the "scariest recession of our lifetime" and the fact that in previous years racing had done "little more than stand still while Britain enjoyed strong economic growth".

He attributed that failing to a leadership crisis but is proud of the newly-formed BHA's achievements in uniting racecourses, trainers, jockeys, breeders and others.

He cited the rescheduling of the Ebor meeting and the Aon Chase as examples of "efficient, effective and close co-operation", and hopes through a united front that synergies can be found to allow racing be better placed to weather the economic instability.

Racing's commercial activity is now carried by Racing Enterprise Limited (REL) - owned equally by the RCA and Horsemen's Group - which brings together all rights holders.

Part of REL's activity has been a brand review for the sport, for which they have hired Harrison Fraser to establish what stakeholders want, what brand racing should have, identify target customers and develop a marketing plan.

David Fraser of the brand and design company hopes to have an implementation plan in place by the end of the summer, and believes a great deal of effort is needed for racing to reach out to new markets.

He said: "For many people horseracing is invisible. The sport is well-regarded but of low saliency to most occasional punters.

"The scope of converting casual racegoers into aficionados is limited by the complex nature of the product.

"Racing does not talk to the youth market, and there is more to marketing to the female audience than ladies' days."

He suggested there are many simple betting products to bring in new audiences, and that getting the sport on to news pages, gossip pages, evening news programmes and in magazines will slowly see young people being attracted to the industry.

An ageing customer base, with a lack of the 18-35 age group, females and ethnic minorities were also issues raised by the review.

BHA chief executive Nic Coward outlined plans for 2009 which include continuing to implement the recommendations of the fixture list review, addressing cost issues and modifying systems to make ownership easier.

He also spoke of maximising new media opportunities to enhance promotion and this coincided with the re-launch of the regulator's website at britishhorseracing.com.

With integrity at the core, a new rule book will be introduced in July and the BHA is committed to working with the Professional Jockeys' Association to address the number of jockeys in breach of the whip rules.

With the final set of charges relating to the 2007 Old Bailey race-fixing trial being issued recently, Coward added that the BHA have "a clear target to complete the majority of investigations within nine months, and all to be brought to charges in 12 months".

The British minister for sport, Gerry Sutcliffe, also addressed the assembled audience and pointed out that a year on from the first conference that the Tote remains unsold and that the Levy is still in place.

As far as the latter is concerned he argued that racing and bookmaking should come to agreement between themselves without the need for mediation, while the Tote will not be brought to the market until a decent return can be guaranteed.

He added: "There are great opportunities for racing. It is not for the government to deliver the situation and I urge racing to work together."

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