It’s one of the most eagerly anticipated fixtures in the racing calendar.
Hundreds of thousands of people descend on Royal Ascot to watch the action unfold in the flesh, but for those who want to swerve the dress code and occasional pomposity of the blue riband event the TV broadcast is an absolute necessity.
Since taking on the media rights, ITV has enjoyed slowly increasing viewing figures for the meeting, and those came to a head at the 2019 edition with a handsome 1.24 million people tuning in to the drama.
However, this could soon be a thing of the past – certainly for viewers on terrestrial television – with ITV’s current deal with Ascot set to run out in 2020.
The broadcasters has drawn up a three-year extension to the present contract, but in it Ascot would receive a pay cut – the only major racecourse in the UK to be offered such terms.
Naturally enough, they aren’t all that keen to put paper as a result, although many industry figures have commented that they stand to lose out if they don’t sign up for a deal with a terrestrial broadcaster.
Sky Sports Racing currently shares the rights to Royal Ascot with ITV, however their coverage of the 2019 meeting drew just 25,000 viewers on average. That suggests that the course will be significantly worse off if they remove the free-to-air option for racing fans.
ITV has now demanded that Ascot officials make up their minds by Saturday whether they are going to sign the extension or not.
Betting Firms Warn of Terrestrial Blackout
The confusion over the situation with Ascot comes at a time when ITV is reportedly moving forward with a contract extension with many other leading racecourses in the UK and Ireland.
The broadcaster has opened talks with the Racecourse Media Group, who represent many of the biggest names in racing, with discussions over an extension until 2024 in a deal worth £30 million said to be at ‘an advanced stage’, according to The Times newspaper.
That will ensure the future of the likes of the Cheltenham Festival, the Grand National meeting and the Epsom Derby on free-to-air TV, as well as British Champions Day, which is hosted by Ascot but is a meeting not wholly owned by the venue.
The stumbling block is that Ascot has claimed that they do not want more money that is paid in their current deal with ITV, but so far the media firm has not budged from their reduced offer.
And that could mean they reject ITV’s offer, leaving Royal Ascot and other meetings at the track, including the prestigious pre-Christmas festival, likely to be shown exclusively on Sky Sports Racing.
One bookmaker, Betfair, has already confirmed it will reconsider its lucrative sponsorship deals with Ascot if the option of free-to-air TV is removed, identifying a clear link between betting turnover and the ‘ITV shop window’.
The brand pumps money into Ascot for their Christmas meeting, and takes naming rights for the Ascot Chase, another high-class Grade 1 affair.
Meanwhile the head of PR at Coral Ladbrokes, David Stevens, has said he hopes that Royal Ascot can remain a fixture on terrestrial TV. He said:
“As there is direct correlation between terrestrial television coverage of racing and increased betting turnover on the sport, the current extensive ITV contract that covers all the year’s flagship meetings is something we absolutely welcome, with the increased year-on-year audience figures proof of the sport’s continued relevance and popularity.
“Royal Ascot is the biggest week of the Flat season in betting terms, and forms a key part of the terrestrial programme. We would hope that position can be maintained going forward.”