Funding revolution will bring racing into the 21st century at last

For the first time we should get an idea of how much racing is commercially worth to a mass audience, without the statutory fog of the Levy to get in the way

Nick Rust, the British Horseracing Authority’s chief executive, described Thursday’s confirmation that the government will seek to replace the sport’s Levy funding system by April 2017 as “truly historic”, but it might still be argued that he was selling it short.

If all goes to plan, replacement of the Levy by a commercial system to capture both retail and online betting on racing will catapult the sport straight from the 1960s, when the Levy was introduced, into the same here and now as everyone else.

The first and most obvious question on many minds will be: how much is it worth?

Bringing offshore betting under the umbrella will, inevitably, raise millions, and probably tens of millions, more each year, to boost an industry which, directly or indirectly, employs 85,000 people. More information about the hard numbers, including the rate at which bookmakers will be charged, will emerge in due course, possibly in the Budget speech on Wednesday week. In a sense, though, the money is not the most important thing. It is the principle that is truly priceless.

The fundamental flaw in the Levy system was that it always allowed the bookmakers to make the opening offer, as if it was the bookies, rather than their punters, who were the ultimate source of the cash. Racing stages entertainment for its audience, and what they lose over time from betting on it is the price of their fun.

But instead of selling tickets to the public like a normal business, the Levy forced racing to go through an agent, which block-booked the entire theatre and then set a limit on how much it would pay. A commercial replacement for the Levy should not only modernise the funding of racing, but its entire structure and outlook. The punters, and not the bookmakers, will at last assume their rightful position as the sport’s real customers.

The bookmakers, meanwhile, will be service providers, paid a commission for handling racing’s income stream from betting. Finally, crucially, it will not be a question of how much the bookies pass on to racing, but how much racing lets them keep.

As a result, and for the first time, we should also get a good idea of how much British racing is worth commercially to a mass audience, without the statutory fog of the Levy to get in the way. The sport’s income from betting will be intimately linked to the success or failure of attempts to grow its audience in Britain and abroad and give it what it wants: an exciting, deeply competitive sport which is also the best and most natural betting medium yet conceived.

This is an opportunity that racing has been working towards for many years. Try as they might, the bookmakers could not outrun the 21st century and basic, commercial common sense forever.

The big gambling businesses that have resisted the sport’s Authorised Betting Partner initiative thus far may decide to keep running for a little longer.

Alternatively, they may cave in and accept that, in future, they will hand over a slice of their entire gross profit on British racing before they do anything else, and that the future might as well start now.

But whatever happens on ABP, British racing now has a firm commitment to Levy replacement from a government which seems to have the will to deliver. At last, it seems to be a promise that racing can take to the bank.


Greg Wood

The GuardianTramp

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