A Poisoned Chalice?

Quite a few people have expressed surprise that John Smith’s have decided not to sponsor the Grand National after next year’s renewal.

My only surprise is that people are surprised at the decision.

John Smith’s will have sponsored the race for ten years and it is a sponsorship which does not come cheaply and they cannot deny their association with the race has, generally, been well worth the investment in terms of publicity.

Times, however, are changing and it is very easy to see why pouring so much money into the race is looking to be an investment which makes poor business sense, indeed it is in great danger of becoming a liability.

I don’t always agree with the BBC’s racing correspondent Cornelius Lysaght but in an analysis piece on the BBC Sport website he wrote:-

“With the ex-course boss Julian Thick out after the re-structuring of Aintree's parent company, and the British Horseracing Authority's articulate top vet leaving too, this news just adds to the difficulties facing the home of the Grand National.

"It looks like John Smith's has made what is a surprising decision mainly for commercial reasons, though the public image of the race - in which two horses have died in both of the last two runnings - must have been in the brewer's thinking as well.

"With that in mind, it remains to be seen how easy finding a replacement turns out to be."

Whilst the first paragraph may not be a fundamental reason for the withdrawal it is a consideration. If they have had a good working relationship with Thick a new appointee could well change the dynamics of the relationship between the sponsors and the racecourse. Personal relationships in business should never be underestimated.

The departure of Tim Morris from the BHA is also a bad move for Aintree and the Grand National. Morris has been a credible defender of the race in the face of vociferous and mounting criticism of the Grand National – indeed he is probably the only credible spokesman the BHA has available to field. Yet his services are no longer required.

Now I have been the first to argue that the BHA needs to cutback in the face of diminishing income but I have to say the removal of Morris and before that Paul Scotney does, along with other decisions made this year, seriously call into question the judgement and competency of BHA chief Paul Bittar.

More pertinent in Lysaght’s analysis is the public image of the race. I know this topic has been done to death and I have no intention of rehashing the arguments again here but, like it or not, the Grand National does have a serious perception issue in the eyes of the general public.

Now it is completely and utterly irrelevant if said perception is right or wrong – it is there and, thus far, racing has done little to dispel the perception and with the departure of Morris it looks as though the BHA is giving up on the PR front.

With such a poor perception is it any wonder sponsors are going to look again at committing huge amounts of money to a race which has the potential to alienate so many members of the public? Members of the public who ultimately contribute  to the profitability of the organisation.

It is commercial suicide to be so intrinsically associated with a product which has already alienated many and could well continue to alienate people further.

There was one other factor which Lysaght, understandably, failed to mention.

That is, of course, television coverage of the race moving from the BBC to Channel Four.

Even though the viewing figured on the BBC have plummeted over the past  thirty years, the race still attracted a domestic TV audience of around nine million ….. a tasty prospect for any big name sponsor.

It is highly unlikely the viewing figures when it moves to Channel Four will be even half that number, I predict they may, if they are lucky, attract around 2m viewers. Channel Four’s biggest ever viewing figures are 11.2 million and that was for the Paralympic Opening ceremony which came hot on the heels of the main Olympics (and bear in mind the BBC picked up a record 26.3 million viewers for the Olympic closing ceremony).

Channel Four’s best ever racing audience stands at a relatively paltry 1.4 million.

Also the BBC gave massive advance advertising to the race across its television and radio networks – C4 may well also run trailers but to a far smaller audience. The BBC trailers reminded viewers the race was coming, it bought the race into the public consciousness.

So from a sponsors perspective the move to Channel Four from the BBC is a massive negative.

Aintree and John Smith’s may well reach their aim of a 1m Grand National next year – if they do I suspect it will be a one-off.

I think Aintree will struggle to find a sponsor prepared to commit the same amount of money John Smith’s were, indeed I think they will struggle to find a sponsor who wants to be associated with such a potentially damaging product.

My strong suspicion is the new sponsor will come from within the industry and if I was tempted to have a bet (which I’m not) my money would be on the Betfair Grand National in 2014.

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