What Does a Lack of Patrons – and Punters – Mean for the Future of UK Racing?

Sandown RacecourseIf you’re of a particular sensitive disposition at the moment, you should approach your daily flick-through of the Racing Post website with extreme caution.

The media outlet had not one, not two but three different stories detailing dwindling attendance figures at UK race meetings, and those articles – allied with the underlying numbers – do not make for happy reading.

The first story related to the Dante meeting at York, which is typically one of the standout fixtures of the Flat racing calendar. However, crowd numbers are down on the average – in fact, around 2,500 fewer punters each day have flocked through the turnstiles.

Meanwhile, at Doncaster concerns over a ‘low crowd estimate’ have led to some sections of the racecourse – including the Champagne Lawn – being closed.

That’s bad news for on-course bookies like Andy Geraghty, who shared the announcement on his Twitter page:

So why are attendance figures at UK racing meetings in decline, and what does that mean for the sport’s future?

Staying Away

Watching Horse Race From Balcony

The situations at York and Doncaster are reflective of the overall picture dogging racing at the moment.

The latest figures from the BHA, which covered the first quarter of 2022, suggest that crowd numbers at British race meetings are the lowest they’ve been since 1995 (discounting the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021).

And it’s big meetings that are feeling the pinch just as much as the everyday action on the Flat or on the National Hunt calendar. Flagship meetings at Sandown, Newmarket, Chester and Doncaster have all disappointed with their attendance levels, and all told around 12% of patrons have been lost compared to 2019 figures.

The Racecourse Association has published their own data set under the heading ‘signs of encouragement’, but if you look at the basic numbers you can clearly see that overall crowds were down 350,000 in 2021 compared to 2019 – and that’s across pretty much the same number of meetings too.

Back up at York, the marketing and sponsorship boss at the course, James Brennan, blamed an array of factors ranging from the weather to a change in how they collected data for their poor crowd numbers, but eventually he hit the nail on the head. “We have to be honest and face up that this is a challenge for racing, as it is for every leisure venue,” he told the Racing Post.

He is referencing, of course, the cost-of-living crisis, which is seeing household bills rise and leaving many families with stark choices to make on how they spend their money – leisure activities are, typically, one of the first things to be sacrificed.

Ironically, many people are unwilling to sacrifice their summer holiday no matter what the economic conditions – the summer racing calendar in particular will have to combat that as singletons, couples, friends and families enjoy holidaying aboard once more.

For some sports, a drop-off in attendances wouldn’t be that catastrophic. But for racing, where prize money is raised largely thanks to the activities of punters, it is a growing concern.

Crunching the Numbers

With the cost of petrol and diesel rising to eye-watering highs, some owners and trainers are facing tough choices on which meetings to send their horses to, and which will be avoided.

That has led to disappointingly small field sizes in some races, while some connections have noted that prize money is not increasing in proportion with their rising costs – making the training game, for smaller yards, economically very difficult indeed.

To pump up the prize kitty, the BHA really needs crowd numbers to be high – punters on course can then pump money through the bookies, a percentage of which gets reinvested in the sport via the Betting Levy Fund.

The levy and entry fees make up for around 50% of the total prize money fund – consequently, dwindling numbers are catastrophic for the sport. In this chicken-and-egg scenario, the ending is not particularly pleasant for either party.

What can be done? The big cheeses at the BHA and the various racecourses will have to get their heads together to fathom that out, because this is a sport that needs its crowds not only for their atmospheric audibility, but for the sheer financial bottom line they bring.