IFHA: COVID-19 Has Demanded Creativity, Yielded Innovation For Racing Broadcasters

The second of four digital panels of the 54th International Conference of Horseracing Authorities was released last week and focused on the evolution of racing media in the time of COVID-19

The conference, organized by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA), normally takes place in person in Paris the day after the G1 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. This year’s conference program focuses on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the international racing world. In this digital panel, broadcast media members were asked about the way their outlets have adapted to a socially distanced racetrack.

A few takeaways from the panel of media experts:

  • In Britain, viewership that would normally spike for main events and decrease for more pedestrian race days in between has remained more consistent throughout the past months, according to ITV’s Francesca Cumani. It’s hard to tell what this may mean, but Cumani hopes it’s a sign fans are becoming more engaged with racing as they’ve had more time to devote to watching a horse prepare for a classic run.
  • In Japan, Japan Racing Association’s Shigeru Suzuki said the country has seen a drastic increase in new account sign-ups for online wagering platforms. The number of registrants increased by 250,000 compared to pre-pandemic numbers, bringing the total to 4.7 million users. Suzuki also said the Green Channel, normally a pay-per-view way to watch the races at home, has been made available free of charge (though the online app is still paid). Total turnover in Japan year over year is similar to 2019 despite the lack of fan access during COVID-19.
  • Rob Hyland of NBC Sports said that although the disappearance of fans from the racetracks took away some of the magic from big races like the Kentucky Derby, the channel did its best to expand its use of technology to bring the fan experience to viewers at home. Capturing ambient sound became a bigger priority, now that conversations between riders and the sounds of horses galloping could be heard without background noise. More jockeys at this year’s major races were wearing microphones and cameras. These extra points of access enabled remote analysis from anchors who were covering the race from out of state. The restrictions on media attendance also forced NBC to be more efficient — NBC’s crew is normally over 300 for the Kentucky Derby, while this year it was less than 100.
  • In some ways, the silence at racetracks enhances the experience — Jason Richardson of Channel 7 and Racing.com recalled a moment when a jockey got a first Group 1 victory at Royal Randwick. Because there were no crowds shouting at the wire, Richardson was able to hear a group of jockeys behind the winner cheer for their colleague as the race finished.
  • In Australia, Channel 7 has brought the experience of celebrating owners to its viewers by asking ownership groups to film themselves watching the races or providing recordings of Zoom parties they use to virtually gather and watch races. Their energy doesn’t translate exactly the same way, but still elevates the production, according to Richardson.
  • Cumani said that as racing has returned in Britain, broadcasters have had to be mindful of public perception when sending out images from the track. As happy as racing media were to be back, they had to be sensitive to the fact that daily life in the country remained disrupted.

    “In England I think there’s a big danger that racing is is seen as an elitist endeavor, and why should racing continue when other things can’t?” she said.

    Katherine Ford of Equidia and Sky Sports Racing echoed those sentiments from her viewpoint in France, agreeing that camera operators had to be careful not to inadvertently film someone who had pulled down their mask temporarily for a cigarette or a drink, lest viewers think racing personnel or racegoers were not masking properly. Hyland agreed, citing camera framing choices on Kentucky Oaks Day for some presenters whose backdrops were chosen so that the physical distancing between themselves and others would be clear to viewers.

  • Hyland recalled preparing for this year’s Kentucky Derby weekend, when he tried to have more racing participants than usual wearing microphones for ambient sound. Trainer Bob Baffert, who Hyland characterizes as a bit superstitious, declined to wear one on Oaks Day since he felt confident about his chances with Gamine, worrying it would jinx him. He did agree to wear one for the Derby, where he felt less confident in his contenders. Of course, that meant NBC ended up with audio of his emotional reaction during Authentic’s run.

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