After a difficult period during the pandemic, horse racing is still striving to maintain consumer interest, although betting engagement with the sport remains high for bookmakers. 

Speaking to the Racing Post today, Matchroom Sport Founder and President Barry Hearn evaluated the sector’s predicament from his perspective, drawing on his experience in sports such as darts and snooker.

Attempts by racing stakeholders to reach out to a new audience and drive attendances have been numerous, with notable developments including the launch of the Racing League in 2021, using a team based format to appeal to a wider sporting viewership. 

“How can racing be down on attendances when I’m 40% up with darts in the same period?” Hearn remarked, reflecting on his experience promoting darts and snooker events. 

“A lot of them are the same type of customers you want: working-class people. There’s a lot more of them than upper-class people.”

He added: “I look at racing and think, ‘What’s the future?’ I need encouragement. There’s a level of professionalism and commercialism that’s missing.”

As mentioned above, racing has pursued several measures in order to bolster its viewership and attendance figures, although as Hearn noted, the sport still receives extensive TV coverage.

This has included the aforementioned racing league, whilst the Jockey Club has previously stated that it will ‘explore every option’ with regards to expanding the Cheltenham Festival from four days to five.

Events such as Cheltenham and the Grand National continue to draw big crowds and TV audiences, with the latter event returning £1m in prize money to participants for the first time this year.

Likewise, betting engagement also remains consistent – for example, Entain recorded 12.75m bets placed during the three days of the festival this year, a ‘record’ for the Ladbrokes and Coral operator

“At the moment racing has excellent coverage from ITV, although I don’t think they’re paying enough money,” Hearn continued. “The bookmakers aren’t paying enough either, and if I was in charge there’d be a thundering row.”

Under current conditions, horse racing in the UK receives financial support from bookmakers in the form of the levy, by which 10% of sportsbooks profits are channelled back into the sport each year.

Leading racing stakeholders have been campaigning for a reform to the betting levy for some time, with the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), Jockey Club and the Horsemen’s Group forming a “steering group” in October 2020.

The groups have also been engaging with MPs over the past few years on the issue, including meeting with Ministers, to discuss the topic of reviewing the betting levy. 

Should Hearn’s suggestions be taken on board and racing leaderships’ calls for a levy review materialise, a greater slice of these profits would be shared by bookmakers with the sport.

“This is a time for bravery now,” Hearn asserted to the Racing Post. “It needs stronger leadership with better evaluation and support – it needs investment and diversity. Racing has to be saying, enough is enough, we have to expand the business, otherwise it dies.”

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