The Hoarse Whisperer
by Jenny Ortuoste
for 6 June 2007, Wednesday, BusinessWorld
Suggested Heading: Does TV Coverage Matter?
For years, industry analysts have debated on what truly drives growth in horseracing. There are many factors to consider, but for now let’s focus on live coverage of the races over cable television.
The KBP (Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster sa Pilipinas) Program Standards Code specifically forbids the live airing of races on “free” TV. Cable TV, which is not bound by KBP standards, has been the home of the “Karera Channel” for around ten years now, and channel surfers are used to aimlessly clicking their remotes and coming upon a black screen filled with a grid of white numbers to be followed by the colorful parade of horses and the action-jammed race.
SkyCable, acknowledged to be the market leader in terms of number of subscribers, used to carry both PRC (Philippine Racing Club) and MJC (Manila Jockey Club) races for a minimal monthly channel lease fee.
However, times have changed and SkyCable this year charged both racing clubs a monthly fee that is twenty times higher. This would drive up the clubs’ operating costs into the stratosphere, so PRC has bowed out of the network, trusting to Destiny and other independent cable operators to carry their racing coverage.
MJC races are still being aired on SkyCable, but only due to the goodwill of the new channel lessee. MJC’s races will, within a month or so, likewise be dropped unless arrangements are made.
The debate before PRC was dropped by SkyCable was heated and intense. Would industry sales suffer? Prize money for winners and placers and dividends for bettors are tied to gross sales, and it was a cause of much concern to horseowners. Race aficionados mostly worried about their convenience in watching the races.
Several months after the fact, it is clear that PRC racing sales in fact improved, especially this past week. Last Sunday, for instance, they grossed P38.922 million, an astronomically high figure that recalls glory days of three to four years past, when numbers like this were the norm at the staging of huge racing festivals.
The amazing thing is that only three out of thirteen races on last Sunday’s card were minor stakes races with moderate prize money; the rest were ordinary races that were hyped with names, with no additional money or trophies.
PRC racing officials anticipated that with their races no longer covered on SkyCable and less households able to view their races, illegal bookies would no longer be able to use the coverage for their activities, and punters would be forced to troop to OTBs (off-track betting stations) to participate. They were proven right.
Their in-track sales are stronger as well, making up 10-12% of the total take since their track in Makati is easily accessible to urbanites who make up the majority of kareristas. (MJC, by contrast, gets only 2-3% of sales from in-track.)
However, PRC says that it is OTB sales that have surged, rather than the in-track. They are not worried about their upcoming move to remote Trece Martires in Cavite next year (their last race at the Makati track is said to be in May 2008), since they will rely on their strong and extensive OTB network.
So is broad TV coverage really necessary for the sport to survive? It seems not – because consumer loyalty is so strong, fans will go where they must to continue enjoying the races. It’s a matter of passion. Racing is in the heart of its fans – and they will keep the sport alive. But will it thrive? That’s a question to spark another debate. ***