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The Racing League – Boom or Bust? ft. CMO Oli Harris

What is the Racing League?

William Hill's Racing League is a competition where 12 teams compete against each other throughout 36 races to be crowned champion. The winner, of course, is the team that has accumulated the most points. The competition takes place once a week over 6 weeks, with 6 races contested each time. All the races vary in distance between 5 furlongs up to a mile and a half, and they're all handicap races for 3-year-olds upwards. The first running of the Racing League took place this year between July-September at 4 different courses (Newcastle, Doncaster, Lingfield, and Royal Windsor). This innovative idea brings about a team-based rivalry, much like the Shergar Cup at Ascot, but involves more jockeys/trainers and has more teams taking part.

Naturally, the higher you finish in a race, the more points you earn. 1st place earns you 25 points; whilst 10th place is the final point-earning spot getting you 1 point (each race has 12 runners with only one entrant per team). These points accumulate throughout the competition, creating a league table, much like the premier league in football. Each team involved comprises 2-4 trainers, 30 horses, and 3 designated jockeys. They wear specified team colours (much like a football kit) so it's easy to recognise who is who. The team names refer to the sponsors, i.e. Talksport sponsors Team Talksport, and each team has the sponsor emblazoned on their chest.

Here are the teams that took part in the inaugural Racing League:

The teams, trainers and jockeys that took part in the first running of the Racing League

Each race boasts a whopping £50,000 in prize money, which is a great incentive and bonus for all involved, with a total prize pot of £2 million! (£150,000 bonus to the winners upon its conclusion).

That tells you a bit about what the Racing League is, so let’s look at some people’s opinions on this new idea…

Opinions on the Racing League

Opinions between racing fans seem to be divided over the Racing League. For many, it’s a fresh new idea that will be good for the sport, attracting new people to get involved in a unique style of competition. For others, though, it’s a step in the wrong direction…

The jockeys involved, from the outside at least, look to be backing the idea. Jockey Nicola Currie (Team Racehorse Lotto) said: “There's a real buzz about the place. It was quite exciting driving here today. It looks a bit different, and it feels different too”. This new type of competition could not only be good for the sport in attracting potential new followers, but also financially for trainers, owners, and jockeys. The races are for runners rated 0-90 and have a prize pot of £50,000. This brings the potential for a usual class ¾ rated horse to bag a prize pot averaging 5x more than what is on offer elsewhere at a normal meeting. There has been a lot of talk recently about the lack of prize money in British racing, so the Racing League looks to be a step in the right direction. It's also worth noting that the first fixture of the Racing League at Newcastle attracted around 1,500 spectators. On the face, this seems low, but it was in fact around double what the normal fixture at that track would achieve.

Of course, like anything, it has its critics. But from what I’ve seen of the first season of the Racing League, it has provided new opportunities, extra prize money, and a new style to bring more people to racing. That to me is very positive!

Top jockey Jack Mitchell with his trophy

Tom Collins from the Racing Post said: “We’ve got horses that wouldn’t usually come over and run on a Thursday night all-weather card. It’s better racing, we’ve got some money in the sport, and it’s slightly more interesting. It has a different dynamic than a normal racecard.” I think that’s the key here; they're trying something new to attract viewers to the sport. SKY is a huge promotional partner that will provide a significant platform to build from going forward. Not only this, but the prize money on offer will help to stem the bleeding of the crisis currently going on in Britain. Many within the sport seem to be stuck in their ways, but given a chance with experience now under their belt, I believe it can grow to become a significant part of the sport.

I think, however, there are some valid arguments and criticisms about certain aspects, namely the choice of location and also the time of year. The idea of attracting families during the summer holidays is all well and good, but surely it makes more sense to occupy a slot in the calendar on a Saturday, for example? This would get even more exposure, would suit their target audience, and could fit in nicely on a weekend where it wouldn’t be overshadowed by some of the bigger meetings. Launching on a Thursday night at Newcastle is far less of a spectacle than a Saturday afternoon at a Grade 1 track, not to mention that focus was drawn to the big meetings at Galway and Goodwood at the time of launch.

Despite some calling it a ‘damp squib,’ and being slightly underwhelmed by the concept, they’ve now got a decent platform to build from. The Shergar Cup isn’t beloved by all, but it has become a prominent part of the racing calendar. Should the Racing League follow a similar course of action, and iron out some details, it will give them the best platform to succeed. CEO Jeremy Wray said: "There is a danger of making jumps too quickly. If you look at some of the bold steps being attempted by the new golf league being talked about, it appears to have antagonised sports authorities, and then it becomes difficult to bring about change. We've worked with authorities to understand how we can disrupt positively. They have pushed some ideas back, but some we will introduce gradually."

A packed crowd at The Rowley Mile, something the Racing League is working towards

Inclusivity, or a lack of it, is also something that some have heavily criticised within the sport. Many have taken the view that it is more inclusive because it is something that everyone can get on board and enjoy, including those new to the sport. Others feel, though, that it caters too heavily towards that and misses a lot of the vital components of horse racing.

Looking at inclusivity from a different angle, however, may help. It's inclusive in bringing together British and Irish racing as it features an all-Irish team. British and Irish racing rarely combine unless it's a few horses being sent here and there at the big festivals, so it's welcomed that the Irish can compete against the British in a more even team event. The idea of competing as a team also brings about a different type of rivalry. Rather than trainer vs trainer or jockey vs jockey competition, it involves different jockeys teaming up and working together in a serious, but friendlier, team environment. This is something that is lacking in racing and adds a breath of fresh air to the weighing room. It also allows British and Irish racing to not only be compared but represented more equally, bringing in extra viewers and interest from both sides. Barry Orr from Betfair said: “I think it’s a good initiative and I’m interested to see how it plays out. From an Irish point of view, I think it’s great that there is inclusion and that kind of rivalry. We can get behind it because we have our own team.”

There are some issues with inclusivity regarding watching the events, however. This competition would be better suited to mainstream TV, where viewing is free and accessible to most families. Unfortunately, because of failures in striking a deal with ITV and The Jockey Club, the Racing League is shown on Sky Sports, which is only available to those who pay for Sky/that channel. Sky Sports Racing has a far lower viewer ratio/higher average age ratio naturally than ITV, which not only limits the number/age of the people likely to watch but also limits the opportunities of which tracks to run the league at. ITV and The Jockey Club own and operate much bigger racecourses such as Aintree, Epsom, and Sandown, which would've given the league added fuel for viewer numbers and crowds. The incentive to go to a big racecourse that holds Group-level action would be much higher than the courses which it is operating at such as Newcastle. They have, however, struck a deal with News UK to cover the event and improve its prestige. Wray said: "We are paying to get more exposure. If you're going to speak to a wider audience, you have to do so through those types of channels as much of racing's media audience is confined to the Racing Post."

Despite these setbacks, the Racing League carries potential going forward to strike these sorts of deals and boost their overall reputation and numbers.

The SKY Team working on coverage from the Racing League

Also, with the league aiming to be a more family-friendly concept, it has attempted to take the focus away from gambling, whilst encouraging more regular attendance and engagement from all ages. In doing so, they are aiming to reduce reliance on the Horse Racing Betting Levy. Although still being levy-friendly, they are trying to create a less-archaic narrative to focus on the sport itself rather than centring it around gambling. This will make the league more suitable for a younger, more generalised everyday audience.

Creating more engaging content and focussing on the action without forcing gambling upon people is a step in the right direction. Horse Racing and betting are intrinsically linked though, and many will find this type of competition a great betting product. Putting a particular focus on the atmosphere at the events helps to create a 'festival feel' that is less intense. Combining concerts and racing as one big entertainment package helps to further cater the events towards the public, whilst taking the focus away from betting. Martin Cruddace, chief executive officer of Arena Racing Company said: “Local bands and DJs will be present at each event performing throughout the meeting, alongside food stalls and gaming areas. Not enough has been done to create a buzz for the audience between races, so we have to look at making racing an overall entertainment package.” I believe this is a positive step in attempting to make racing and the league more inclusive.

An example of an event the Racing League put on after one of the meetings

There is, however, an underlying issue of participation. Whilst the premise behind it is good, one issue that was noted from the first running of the event was participation numbers. Horses being removed because of unforeseen circumstances such as injury cannot be helped, however, there didn't seem to be sufficient planning on an alternative should this happen. Having larger field sizes would make the action more gripping, whilst ensuring there were backup horses for each team would help to keep the field sizes consistent. The same should apply to back-up jockeys if a jockey is unavailable. There was an instance towards the end of the league where Team Ireland had significantly fewer runners than the other teams. This gave the other teams a significant advantage, whilst it also meant that participant numbers dwindled in some races (they declared only 9 horses in the 6:35 at the final meeting). The fact that some teams had more participants than others and that some jockeys only attended for a few of the meetings provided an unbalanced affair, which, if trying to emphasise the team aspect would need to be rectified for the future.

Overall though, I felt they got a lot right, and the league had a relatively successful first endeavour on to racing's main stage. They have built a solid foundation to work from in re-vamping the events for this coming season.

So, we’ve looked at some pros and cons for this new concept. Now, let’s hear from the CMO of the Racing League himself, Oli Harris.

What was your initial idea? What you set out to achieve with the league?

“The initial idea came about by wanting to engage more people with racing by adding elements that people understand from other sports. i.e. league, teams etc, and to bring prize money to the mid-tier horses and owners by doing so. The team format allows for a new type of partnership, specifically team naming rights, which in turn meant we could pay decent prize money.”

How do you think it went from the initial idea to the final product now it's finished?

“Covid had a huge impact on the whole thing, from being delayed a year, to not being able to plan fan activations, on course entertainment etc meaning it looked very different. In racing terms, we were generally pleased with lots of close races and lower profile jockeys winning good money and raising their profiles. It certainly wasn't perfect, but there is plenty of room to improve and we are determined to do so.”

What are your responses are to certain criticisms that you've seen?

“Well, we take it all on board. Some of it was fair; some of it without foundation, but that comes with trying anything new.”

What are the plans for the league going forward?

“This is very much a wait and see moment, there is a lot to digest and study. We will be back bigger and better that's for sure.”

I look forward to seeing what Oli and his team do with the Racing League moving forward. Whatever it is, I’m sure it’ll be a resounding success! I’d also like to thank Oli for his input on this piece and wish him the best of luck with the league and his other endeavours going forward.

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