Ascot to switch to new Sky channel in move ITV insider describes as 'bizarre'
Ascot is to leave Racing UK for the new Sky Sports Racing channel that will replace At The Races next year – but the move to join forces with a potential rival has displeased ITV.
Sky is expected to bid for the mainstream 'terrestrial' television rights that ITV holds until the end of 2020 and an insider at ITV described Ascot's decision as "bizarre".
In a major coup Ascot will join the channel from next March in an agreement that will run until at least 2021, with At The Races also managing UK streaming for betting rights for the racecourse.
However, the agreement with Sky Sports Racing does not cover Qipco British Champions Day in October as the rights are held separately and a decision about which of the direct-to-home channels will broadcast the meeting has yet to be made.
Ascot had previously been shown on At The Races before joining Racing UK in 2014.
The course's chief commercial officer Juliet Slot, who led Ascot's rights review, said: "RUK has done an excellent job for Ascot over four years, just as ATR did in the preceding period. We are very lucky as an industry to be serviced by two excellent specialist racing channels.
"We have decided to begin a new journey with Sky Sports Racing because of the significant investment and commitment to the sport that they have demonstrated, their reach capacity on the basic package [14 million], and the brand alignment and cross-promotional opportunities that come with the major sports that Sky cover."
Ascot is one of ITV's main players, and the track's decision has raised concerns about whether the broadcaster might think again about renewing its mainstream television deal with British racing if the course is linked to a potential rival in Sky Sports.
An ITV insider said: "It is being looked upon as a bizarre decision."
Ascot has developed a reputation for ploughing its own furrow, having also decided not to join the racecourse pool betting project Britbet and instead launch its own service, Bet With Ascot, which goes live on Friday.
"Our strategy is to develop the right mix of collaborations with organisations in the UK and internationally to deliver this."
Ascot will still be involved with Racing UK's parent company Racecourse Media Group through a Middle Eastern picture rights deal, the betting shop picture rights contract that runs through to 2023 and also through the contract with ITV, which Henderson said "delivers such an outstanding terrestrial broadcast".
RMG chief executive Richard FitzGerald said it looked forward to continuing to work with Ascot on those ventures.
He also pointed out that from next year Racing UK will broadcast coverage from 61 of the 85 racecourses in Britain and Ireland and 88 per cent of all Group and Graded races.
He added: "We are proud to have played a part in significantly increasing Ascot’s media rights revenues over the last four years and we wish Ascot well on its other media rights businesses."
He added: "In Sky Sports Racing, we are creating a new dedicated home for racing fans, and an eleventh Sky Sports channel. We’re thrilled to be able to add Ascot to what is already a stellar line-up."
In April, Chester and Bangor announced they were moving to the new channel, whose portfolio also includes the William Hill St Leger and Coral Welsh Grand National as well as the Breeders' Cup, US Triple Crown, Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and the Melbourne Cup carnival.
At The Races chief executive Matthew Imi added: "Sky Sports Racing is an important development for our sport which can benefit the whole industry. For the first time, racing will be positioned and heavily cross-promoted shoulder to shoulder with the other key domestic and global sporting events Sky Sports showcases across its ten other channels."
When At The Races last broadcast Ascot both it and Racing UK showed British Champions Day.
British Champions Series chief executive Rod Street said: "The Qipco British Champions Day rights were not included in Ascot's tender and that is because those rights are held separately by British Champions Series Ltd which involves various rights holders including the Jockey Club, Goodwood, Newbury, York, Arena Racing Company and indeed Ascot.
"Now that Ascot has made its decision the British Champions Series Ltd board will discuss its options for Champions Day and will make a decision on our broadcast arrangements based upon what is best for the business, its customers and the sponsor."
Comment: ITV renewal the issue
The news that Ascot is to join the new Sky Sports Racing channel is not a surprise, but it could have implications for the future.
As soon as Ascot started the bidding process for the course's direct-to-home television rights Racing UK became resigned to the channel losing Britain's most prestigious racecourse.
Sky Sports Racing may have added Chester and Bangor to its roster but it was reportedly unsuccessful in tempting some of the other major independent courses on board and it needed to bring Ascot into the fold for its credibility.
The decision will not impact RMG financially – the betting shop media rights deal with SIS in which Ascot is involved until 2023 is the really lucrative arrangement.
It will also help Racing UK's scheduling from next year. This Saturday afternoon the channel is due to show Newmarket, York, Ascot and Chester.
If Ascot and Chester had not jumped ship then next year the channel would have to have accommodated them as well as an Irish card.
However, it is in the realm of free-to-air rights that Ascot's decision may have the greatest impact.
Those hoping to keep the best of British racing on a mainstream channel will be concerned that the loss of Ascot to a potential rival in Sky may make ITV think about renewing its deal.
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