Cheltenham Festival Member Insights

Member Insights: why the Cheltenham Festival represents the best of sport

March 15, 2023

In this Member Insights article, Richard Brinkman talks about his love for the Cheltenham Festival, the positive picture it paints of sport at a troubling time, and why as an industry we need to look outside the ‘bubble’ more.

I am always pleased to see the Cheltenham Festival arrive. This year it seems even more welcome than ever.

It’s a signpost in the calendar, a reassuring presence, that reaches beyond racing and the sports fan. It has a simplicity and cultural relevance well beyond racing – but delivers in spades for the purists too. Whether watching on TV, following on Facebook or actually at the track it delivers that rare alchemy – sport as entertainment. Its good fun and can be as complex or simple as you wish to make it.

The uplift in my spirits is about more than just the product though. It’s also not just due to the promise of fairer weather ahead and the back of the worst of winter, nor the magnificent top-class competitive racing, nor the unbridled enthusiasm and good nature of bumper crowds roaring their favourites on.

These are constants every year.

This year more than ever the Festival has lifted my spirits by reminding me that the best of sport creates unity and cohesion in bringing a wide array of people together through shared interests and passions. As an industry it is sometimes important to remind ourselves of that simple fact. It’s easy to lose sight of this in the hullabaloo and noise of trying to carry sport through turbulent times.

If we think about the current picture that the sport industry is presenting to the world this picture of unity and social cohesion becomes particularly important. Let’s face it wherever you look there has been a paucity of good news. The overwhelming picture can appear to be one of division and in-fighting:

Football is always tribal but its rejection of the money of the Super League but seeming welcoming of state ownership through the back-door and reluctance to trickle the money down to lower-tiers let alone grassroots is not a good look when one considers financial sustainability and top-level wages.

Cricket – the Hundred, ECB’s ham-fisted racism enquiry, and a lack of due care and attention to international cricket beyond the big 3.

F1 – governance and the application of regulations to create a competitive spectacle.

Rugby Union – head injuries, player strikes, financial sustainability of clubs, participation numbers.

Rugby League – creating relevance and competition in the international game vs the well-established club game.

Golf – LIV – need I say more!

Tennis – female prize-money, Novak vs vaccine rules, ATP vs Wimbledon, the seemingly ever-changing carousel of international competitions.

IOC – increasing ambivalence and lack of interest in hosting, handling of Russia and its allies.

The shambolic Lineker/MOTD debacle (whichever side of the debate you are on)

I could go on but the point is made. And this is even before you consider macro issues such as environmental impact and the ethics involved in dealing with certain regimes. The picture presented to the outside world is fractured at best.

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Many will (correctly) say that the examples are just natural instances of business evolution and that all industries are constantly adapting, innovating and changing to the environment around them (or they should be if they wish to remain successful). There is, therefore, no problem – its just normal business playing out.

Except it’s not! Sport is not normal business. Very few businesses survive for decades, become household names but never turn a profit. Not many industries have every proposed development or change, every piece of dirty laundry, aired in public; pored over in the court of public opinion.

Often for better, but sometimes for worse, this is the price sport pays for stirring the passions of large numbers of people. Its greatest strength is its greatest weakness – it elicits strong emotional (and often not very rational) responses.

So what? Why does it matter? We know that this is the natural growing pains of an industry at an inflexion point where it tries to cope with changing technologies, consumption habits, competition for leisure time, revenue models etc. Most who follow sport know that these elements add to the soap opera and, therefore, interest.

The image portrayed matters not because of what it says to us sport fans. It matters because of the impression that it presents to the non-sports fan – and there are a lot of them! Believe it or not, over half the population have little or no interest in sport. I am sure that statement leaves many of you incredulous – it was always a stat that amazed me when I worked at various insight and research agencies.

Over the past two years I have stepped away from working exclusively in the sports “bubble” and have found myself in other industries working amongst these remarkable (and strange!) folk who do not share our passion. And guess what? They are very well balanced and rational people, with interests and passions of their own!

Interestingly their impression of the sport industry is usually wholly inaccurate but informed by the impression projected to them – awash with money, unattractively confrontational and competitive, a bit of an exclusive club and riven with self-interest and infighting. That is, obviously, a gross generalisation but it probably somewhere covers the reason why they have little or no interest.

Of course, this is fine – each to their own, the world would be a very dull place if we all liked the same things! But the views of non-sports followers should matter to us in the sports industry because these people are a sizable and important constituents to politicians.

And it seems (whether we like it or not) political involvement in the sports industry is only going to increase – whether it be to keep our swimming pools open, ensure access to opportunity in schools, support bids and infrastructure projects, underwrite certain pursuits, guide on governance and safety, ensure community assets are protected in times of hardship/uncertainty, or rule on the involvement of foreign interests in British sporting assets. And that is even before you consider direct taxpayer investment via UK Sport and Sport England.

It is inevitable that, if the sport industry asks for and accepts financial and regulatory advantages as an important health, social and communal entity in tough times, that it will get greater political scrutiny on an ongoing basis. Politicians (of all hues) are compelled to take into account the views of all voters (and would-be voters) when reaching decisions about the allocation of resources. This includes the very large number of people with little or no interest in sport and, more than likely, a poor impression of what they regularly see and hear.

At a time when money is scarce, need is great and there are a large number of competing and loud voices for greater central government support there has, perhaps, never been a greater need to look beyond the “bubble” and think about the impression that sport in the UK is presenting to not just its core constituents, but to the population at large.

Fan engagement is a big (and important) topic in the sports industry but, let’s not forget, that there are also a huge number of non-fans that also need to be reached in order to appreciate the unity, cohesion and community that sport can create. This is not for their sake but in order to help sport grow.

Those of us that love it know how worthwhile and beneficial sport is. However, we cannot always rely on the Cheltenham roar and Constitution Hill transcending to the front pages to create this impression for us. Old traditional mass routes such as the BBC will also no longer have the reach and influence we have taken for granted. We need to do more to ensure that the political support sport has enjoyed up until now is ongoing and, if anything, grows.

Social and community cohesion is a priceless commodity – let’s talk it up and not allow the
dialogue around sport to be dominated and distorted by a fixation on differences.

Cheltenham Festival Member Insights