26 June 2015 – The Daily Telegraph
Interview course axing of At The Races was a big mistake, says the channel’s leading man Matthew Imi
When Ascot decided to jump ship from the At The Races television channel to join Jockey Club Racecourses and the big independent tracks on Racing UK, many assumed that the move would hole ATR below the waterline.
But one year on from the implementation of that decision, the non-subscription racing channel, owned jointly by Sky and Arena Racing, continues to go from strength to strength. Each year in business has been better than the previous one and, this year, it is on course to blow away all forecasts. Tomorrow evening, it will be the only place in Britain to see live the 150th Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby.Though the two channels provide largely the same product and, even work together on GBI, a joint venture packaging British racing to sell abroad, they lock horns domestically.
When it comes to the daily business of broadcasting racing, it seems there are two very different ways to skin a cat, and both channels have their advantages: for example, Racing UK subscribers enjoy free admission to some courses. But one of the principal differences is that ATR can now boast 2.7million viewers coming to the channel every month – it is available in 14 million households – against the subscription-based Racing UK’s maximum 50,000 (as well as 4,000 clubs and pubs).
“Racing talks about delivering a big audience, we’re doing that,” explained Matthew Imi, chief executive of ATR since it and Racing UK rose from the ashes of the Racing Channel in 2004. “We can tell our racecourse partners, advertisers and sponsors that we’re getting half a million individual viewers a day, a million per week,” Imi added. “We have a totally quantiﬁable audience, but because RUK is not rated [by the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board] it can’t tell how many people are watching at any one time. We also have the largest racing and betting website in the country.”
There has, Imi insisted, been no fall-out with Ascot. Indeed, ATR kept its hospitality suite there because of its importance, and Imi was there with a full box for ﬁve days. But he wonders why Ascot chose to downscale its audience, particularly as the BBC had just gone, too. “We were there for nine years,” said Imi, who is keen to pitch for Racing UK courses when their ﬁve-year contracts come up for renewal. “Our objectives were aligned to theirs. We worked really closely and had an excellent working relationship. But it has never been articulated to me exactly what the reason was for their moving to Racing UK. One can only imagine there was a certain amount of pressure exerted to join Jockey Club Racecourses and the big independents.
“I think people thought ‘oh my God, they’ve lost Ascot, how can they survive?’ But because the bulk of its ﬁxtures are shown on terrestrial, to us, the value was internationally. It didn’t interfere with our ﬁnancial growth. But Ascot is unquestionably worse off without us. “I’m a huge fan, I’ve been going since I was 16. It’s the No 1 racecourse and very progressive but it would be better off with ATR than Racing UK. They have 26 ﬁxtures, 17 are on Channel Four and a third of them go out to two men and a dog.” The fastest growing part of ATR is live-streaming, which it took in- house in 2013 and is now fully integrated with 14 British and Irish bookmakers. In April, races were streamed live 14 million times. “We’re getting racing out there,” Imi said. “Our three watchwords are content, speed and reliability. Content is not just about live racing, it’s stories, news, features and importing international racing. “We are using social media [Facebook and Twitter] to try and attract a new audience – 90 per cent of our social media users are under 45.”
Until 2013, ATR paid 40 per cent of its net revenues to the 27 courses it is in partnership with, but from January 2014 everything it has made, after costs, has gone to the tracks. “I would argue we’re better at monetising racing,” Imi said. “We try to garner a massive audience and monetise that – for example, if we get a new customer for a betting partner then racing gets a cut out of every bet that person has in perpetuity.”
ATR’s latest wheeze to encourage a greater understanding of the sport among its viewers is to dip its toe in racehorse ownership, taking shares in two Highclere horses – a Smart Strike colt with Hugo Palmer and a Dream Ahead colt with David Simcock – to demonstrate what it is like to be an owner. It will follow both horses in a series of features.