Channel 4 Emerges in the attheraces Aftermath

9 April 2004

The broadcasting rights picture for horseracing in the United Kingdom cleared up slightly this week, as officials with Channel 4 announced an 18-month contract with the Racecourse Holdings Trust.

The deal was announced just days after the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) said racecourses broke competition law by collectively selling television rights to attheraces.

In its ruling, the OFT said the Racecourse Association (RCA) acted anti-competitively by negotiating as a consortium of tracks.

The consumer watchdog group said it won't levy a fine against RCA or the 49 member tracks, however, because the group sought a declaratory ruling from the OFT when the deal was signed nearly three years ago.

Still, the decision could impact attheraces' efforts to obtain a refund from the RCA tracks. attheraces had already paid out more than £100 million of its £307 million 10-year deal.

It was initially believed that the ruling could affect the negotiations between broadcasters and track owners, who split into five different factions after the collapse of attheraces deal, but progress came just a day after the OFT announced its final ruling. Channel 4 came up with a winning bid, against its chief rival, ITV, on Wednesday to carry races from the top tracks throughout England. The broadcaster agreed to an 18-month deal with Racecourse Holdings Trust (RHT), which includes Cheltenham, Newmarket, Kempton and Sandown.

Channel 4 won the rights despite bidding substantially lower than ITV, according to reports, because its deal included increased race coverage, while ITV's would have scaled back coverage.

Officials with Channel 4 said the ability to carry the Cheltenham Festival was central to the agreement.

"Channel 4's commitment to racing and the breadth of their coverage has enabled us to make this decision," RHT Managing Director Richard Johnston said. "They have played a key role in championing racing and in raising the profile of a sport with an expanding audience."

The deal returns racing to television after a short hiatus that began March 29, when attheraces pulled the plug. Race fans were forced back to their local betting shops to watch races, the same way they had to before 2001 and the launch of attheraces.

Even with the Channel 4 deal, racing still doesn't have a dedicated network, but both broadcasters and racing officials are confident enough stations will step up to fill the void for the racing and betting public.

Vincent Smith, the director of competition enforcement at the OFT, said this week's ruling sent a warning signal to other sports bodies considering collectively struck media deals.

"We need to make it clear when collective selling may breach competition law," he said. "It is important that sporting bodies and others carefully assess whether collective selling agreements may restrict competition before they enter into them."

RCA Chief Executive Stephen Atkin said it was his understanding the tracks could still form consortiums for stronger negotiating power as long as it doesn't create an imbalance.

"Our understanding is that the OFT does not object to this approach," he said, "but it does make arranging a new deal more complex."

A group of tracks, including Doncaster, Newbury, Goodwood and Ascot, have drawn up a business plan for the "horseracing channel." Andrew Brown, the former director of business development at Granada television, is the project director for the channel.

The group hopes to announce plans within the next month regarding how they channel will be distributed.

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