On 1 January of this year, Sky UK launched  its new channel Sky Sports Racing, which has been led by At the Races CEO Matthew Imi. The channel joined Sky’s ten other dedicated sports channels.

The new channel, which has replaced At the Races, broadcast race meetings from both the UK and abroad to around the world. InsiderSport caught up with Imi to find out how the ways in which the new channel is tailoring its racing coverage to its viewers, how the media giant plans to overcome the challenges that 2019 brings, and how the channel has fared during its first month.

InsiderSport: Are you able to go into greater detail about how Sky Racing can bring the sport to a new audience in 2019?

Matthew Imi: Sky Sports’ broadcast and digital platforms have huge reach and an engaged audience. Our ability to cross-promote our domestic and international racing fixtures to sports fans is a huge opportunity for not only us as a channel but the sport itself.

Sky Sports News is a particularly important asset and one which will help reach sports fans with all the stories racing has to offer as well as deliver more reports, build up and previews for our live racing coverage.

Our challenge at that point is to attract and hold onto the newcomers, while also delivering exceptional coverage to our long-term viewers. Coverage doesn’t have to be binary in terms of its approach to expert viewers or newcomers.

There is a chord to be struck which combines making the programming entertaining and engaging on a wider level while also providing the level of insight that viewers have grown to expect from us and from Sky Sports.

InsiderSport: Can you tell us some of the ways in which racing viewers have benefited from Sky’s expansive sports coverage this year?

MI: We’re still really in the early stages of what we aim to do with our presentation and technology enhancements but already racing fans will have seen a number of improvements on Sky Sports Racing. One of our goals was to improve the standard of all our races, not just the major meetings.

All our coverage is now in HD and supported by a number of new camera positions. We have two live cameras positioned on the finishing straight, allowing for both close and wide shots; we have super slow-motion capabilities on the close shot which allows for immediate analysis on race finishes; and there is a side-on camera to the stalls at our flat meetings to show who gets away effectively.

For the bigger meetings, fans will also be able to enjoy our drone cameras and tracking vehicles. The drone allows for sections of the race to be captured which aren’t available to other cameras and is a superb addition to our coverage.

InsiderSport: How big an issue is media piracy in racing and how do you plan on combating it?

MI: Our primary responsibility is to protect our channel picture signal and this is tightly controlled through contracted distribution agreements with major networks and platforms on an encrypted channel basis, notably with Sky and Virgin Media.

These are companies that deal with the threat of piracy and are well used to doing so. The risk from piracy involving live filming at a racecourse venue is a matter for the racecourses themselves although we will offer support to any of our racecourse partners as required. Anecdotally, we don’t believe the specific problem of drone filming is as severe as may have been reported.

InsiderSport: Could you reveal some of the challenges that are involved with attaining racing media rights, compared to other sports?

MI: As a media rights partner, we know we have a proposition which many racecourses find attractive. From March 1st this year, Ascot, Chester and Bangor on Dee will join Sky Sports Racing.

They know we can deliver first class coverage of all their race days with the production standards associated with Sky Sports. They know we can deliver valuable cross promotion from Sky Sports News and other areas as well as the largest digital audience in racing. And they know they can expect a fully transparent and collaborative partnership tailored to their needs.

I’m not sure racing’s media rights are much more complicated or challenging than other sports but it is true that racing rights in the UK are owned by a number of groups and factions and the importance of betting to racing media rights is unlike other sports.

InsiderSport: The racing industry as a whole has some significant challenges to face this year, especially with Brexit looming which is causing mass-uncertainty. How do you plan to address these obstacles?

MI: All our rights agreements are in place and we don’t expect Brexit to affect us to any great degree from a broadcast perspective. Racing itself faces more complex issues, particularly in the case of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit.

The Tripartite agreement between Britain, Ireland and France has allowed horses to move freely between the three countries since the 1960s and is now part of EU law. Obviously this will cease to exist in the case of ‘No Deal’ which is likely to make the movement of horses between the three countries, and there is a lot of it, potentially problematic.

I’m very hopeful a solution will be found though. It would be a great shame if we reached the point of horses not lining up due to border crossing issues post-Brexit.

InsiderSport: And finally, has your first month of Sky Racing gone as expected? What have been your highlights so far?

MI: We’re delighted with how the launch and first month has gone, particularly after a lot of hard work at Sky and from the production team. Having said that, this is just the beginning and it’s very important to us that we continue to grow and evolve from here, rolling out new production tools, improving graphics, integrating new functionality etc.

Highlights so far include some of the steps we’ve taken to improve the viewer experience and the positive feedback we’ve had on that is hugely rewarding. Along with the additional cameras, everything being fully HD and super slo-mo shots that have all been so well received, we’ve also made an important commitment to have at least one presenter at every UK fixture.

That gives the viewer much more insight and access to what’s going on at the track. We also have time to hear much more from our presenters on course who do an excellent job and now deliver more in-depth analysis and reporting than ever.

We have welcomed some new faces to the team and we are very pleased with how that’s worked complementing our strong exiting talent pool.

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