James Willoughby
Of all sports, racing should be wary of believing that the road to entertainment is to stop taking itself too seriously. The foundation of interest in the sport for the majority is betting, and there isn’t any activity more serious than parting with your money.
— James Willoughby / TDN

The quality of literary output in the world of racing is what gets me up in the mornings. It's a remarkable fact that while jogging, tennis, golf and swimming remain relatively dull in the sphere of sports reporting, rugby, cricket, football and horseracing have for centuries now inspired the linguistic juices of great authors in our game, think Runyon, Kipling, Red Smith, Carlyon, Morris, Milner and Patterson. One of the whizz kids of the current age, is the irrepressible James Willoughby, who for a man whose great talent rests more in the field of analysis, is nonetheless as articulated and creative as the best in his profession. You'd think a commentary on viewership figures might be a little mundane, but his loyalty has turned it into a delightful matza pudding.

Racing on television - whatever the platform - is surely doomed if the belief exists that it is "guilty of taking itself too seriously." This is the charge being aired in numerous places in response to this week's news that, from 2017, ITV is to take over mainstream television coverage of the sport from Channel 4.

Betting on horses, riding and training them are all serious pursuits indeed, and any attempt to trivialise them in the name of entertainment is a mistake. A serious mistake. This isn't the "X-Factor".

No other sport seeks to cheapen its brand by taking its subject more lightly. As the father of a 13-year-old girl who strangely - but delightfully - craves every morsel of information about Stoke City Football Club, it isn't someone having a laugh she wants to watch. Instead, it is serious, informed content which drives her nascent interest, delivered by individuals who have enthusiasm for the sport and packaged in a highly informative fashion via graphics, charts and video packages.

This kind of fan is a sentinel for interest in a sport, not those of superficial leanings. And they deserve to be catered for first on television.

Consider this early paragraph of a press release for BBC's Match of the Day programme in July of this year: "The MOTD team will continue to set the Saturday night agenda with insightful punditry, new enhanced graphics and analysis tools. Audiences can also enjoy…additional stats and analysis." Is the BBC guilty of taking football too seriously?

Channel 4's viewing figures have to be a concern for the sport, and it remains to be seen how the trend develops from 2017 onwards when ITV take over so-called terrestrial or mainstream coverage of the sport, but their true cause remains outside the grasp of anyone, including those who have addressed the issue as if they understand it with perfect clarity.

It is a good point that a difference exists between popular and populist. I don't pretend to understand the key to either, but one is a state and the other an ambition. What is clear from the commercial sector is that a lack of the former is not easy to put right by a brazen ambition to be the latter.

Of all sports, racing should be wary of believing that the road to entertainment is to stop taking itself too seriously. The foundation of interest in the sport for the majority is betting, and there isn't any activity more serious than parting with your money.

Racing simply cannot afford to fall into the trap of cheapening its brand in the name of entertainment. That's not the way the world works. Instead, racing broadcasters need to think about how coverage could be restructured and repackaged technically. The format is still basically the same on every platform: too many talking heads, too much chat and not enough visual and technical innovation.

Too many races are run in the abstract. It might seem to those involved that others need to feel the excitement they do, but this is an example of what psychologists call the "spotlight effect" - the subjective belief that the world seems the same way to everyone as it does to you. For most people who aren't directly involved in a race, it doesn't matter enough who wins and who loses.

Particularly who loses. To make a sport enthralling, somebody has to fail. Someone has to be eliminated, fired, relegated or embarrassed. Racing media is wary of this theme because there is a strangling close-knit culture of deference. This is the obvious contrast a viewer of both football and racing gets when listening to ex-pros, for instance.

Deference is boring. The man or woman on the street doesn't care that Louis van Gaal has won over 500 games as a manager; he or she is intrigued as to whether Manchester United can break out of their losing spell and alleviate the pressure on their boss. A climate of baseless criticism is to nobody's advantage, but intelligent appraisal hasn't much in common with genuflection. Nowadays, sport needs to tell it like it is via fact, data and expert, unfettered opinion.

Sporting events cannot become abstracted from consequences, as too many races shown on television have become. That's when viewers stop caring. The job of the broadcaster is to load an event with anticipation using both art and artifice. It's hard to do that when there are races every five minutes, but switching to a less loaded schedule requires the broadcaster to do more preparation, more packages, more graphics, more interviews, all of which requires more money.

The truth may be gloomy as far as viewing figures are concerned. Racing is a highly nuanced sport which drives interest in it mainly because of its technicalities - not in spite of them. Visit any betting shop and knowledge of the sport's technicalities is probably higher over the null than for any other sport. I know this because I used to work there.

Some sports cannot be repackaged in ways consistent with mass-market tastes. They learn to get better while staying true to themselves. Golf, for instance, is a great example of a highly nuanced sport which would greatly diminish in entertainment if tournaments were not over multiple days. There is no chance that pitch-and-putt could become popular, whereas Twenty20 cricket is (in relative terms). This doesn't mean that golf is failing to exploit an opportunity, even though a shortened form of the game has been discussed.

Racing just isn't crash-bang-wallop. Its themes are involved; the pleasure from it comes because of the feeling of expertise in the aggregate. It isn't guilty of taking itself too seriously, and neither are those responsible for Channel 4 Racing. Just as the world has changed since dinosaurs roamed the Earth, it is better to think space age than stone age.

Extract From Thoroughbred Daily News by James Willoughby