Grand National peak viewing figure raises advertising worry for ITV

Greg Wood
One For Arthur preparing for a victory parade with his trainer Lucinda Russell at her yard in Kinross on Sunday. Photograph: Ian Rutherford/PA

Exceptional weather across the country on Grand National day has been suggested as one reason for an abrupt decline in the viewing figures for the sport’s most famous event on Saturday, when it was broadcast on ITV for the first time. ITV Racing’s coverage of One For Arthur’s victory drew a five-minute peak audience of 8.2m, an 18% drop from a peak of 10m in 2016 when the National was covered by Channel 4, although ITV’s audience share during the race was 62%, up 5% on C4’s share in 2016.

ITV paid around £30m to secure a four-year monopoly on terrestrial coverage of racing from January 2017, ending the sport’s 32-year association with C4. ITV’s wider reach, which was expected to boost viewing figures for racing’s biggest events, was cited as one of the main reasons for racing’s decision to award the contract to ITV, four years after C4 had itself taken over the Aintree coverage from the BBC.

The Grand National is racing’s biggest annual draw – one of the biggest, in fact, in any sport – and John Baker, Aintree’s managing director, said last year a peak audience of 12m “would be at the lower end of expectations” for 2017.

As a result the bare figures for ITV’s coverage appear deeply disappointing. However, the headline number should also be seen in the context of a huge drop in the total television audience on Saturday afternoon, when the warm temperatures and cloudless skies at Aintree reflected the weather nationwide. The overall UK television audience between 2pm and 6.20pm on Saturday was down by 27%, the equivalent of 3.3m fewer people in front of their TVs, while ITV’s 62% peak share of that audience was the station’s highest for any event since England’s match against Iceland in Euro 2016 last June.

Baker said in a statement on Sunday that ITV is “a fantastic partner” for racing, while offering no direct comment on the Grand National’s viewing figures. “ITV is a fantastic partner for our event and our sport,” Baker said. “Their coverage and build-up has been first-class and they really brought to life the stories of the ‘People’s Race’ on television, online and on social media. We look forward to them broadcasting the world’s greatest race to many millions of people again next year.”

A bumper audience figure for the Grand National, significantly ahead of C4’s last broadcast, would have set the seal on an exceptional three days at Aintree. The National itself had a popular, well-backed winner and there were no injuries to any of the 40 runners and riders in the big race for the fifth year in a row.

The sudden drop in the National’s peak audience is a disappointing footnote to the weekend, however, for all that the good weather surely played its part. ITV paid around £10m more for racing’s terrestrial rights than its predecessor and aims to recoup its investment principally via advertising, from bookmakers in particular. If audiences drop below expectation, the value of the airtime to advertisers will fall too, while ITV has also decided to shift much of its week-to-week coverage to ITV4, away from the terrestrial mainstream.

One argument in favour of C4’s approach, with a regular presence on the same channel every Saturday afternoon, was that it helped to maintain a loyal core audience in the lulls between racing’s marqee events, like the Cheltenham Festival, Grand National and Royal Ascot.

ITV4’s average audience figures are behind those of C4, so from racing’s point of view, the high-profile events need to see a significant increase in their audience to justify the £30m price tag on the rights.

Saturday’s Grand National was also the second to be run in a late-afternoon slot at 5.15pm, another move designed to increase the viewing figures, but it was hardly the first to be staged on a warm, sunny day.

ITV’s impressive audience share for its first Grand National will ease some of the disappointment at the sharp drop in its peak figure but C4’s 57% share in 2016 was not far removed from ITV’s 62% and not enough to help them keep the contract. ITV’s figures for Royal Ascot and, above all, next year’s National will now be awaited with perhaps a hint of apprehension.

One For Arthur, only the second Scottish-stabled National winner in the race’s long history (after Rubstic in 1979), was in “brilliant” condition on Sunday according to his trainer, Lucinda Russell, who said the horse would now have a holiday until the autumn.

“What a fantastic day we had, it’s just amazing,” Russell said. “The horse is absolutely brilliant. One of our vets was up here celebrating last night so at 1.30am, they had a quick check of him when he arrived back in the yard.”

One For Arthur is entered in the Scottish Grand National in a fortnight’s time but very unlikely to go to post.

““We put an entry in just in case anything untoward happened at Aintree, but I think he deserves a big field now,” Russell said. “He’s never been a horse that’s been able to run too many times, so I think the ideal thing for him now is a few supermarket openings and then a nice field of grass.”

Coneygree, the 2015 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, exercised at Ffos Las racecourse on Sunday and remains on course for a meeting with Sizing John, this season’s Gold Cup winner, at Punchestown on 26 April.

Mark Bradstock’s chaser has raced just twice since winning the Gold Cup at the end of his novice season over fences, most recently when finishing second behind Cue Card in the Betfair Chase at Haydock last November.  The 10-year-old jumped a full circuit of fences under his regular rider Nico de Boinville alongside stable companion Flintham.

“He worked brilliantly,” Sara Bradstock, her husband’s assistant trainer, said on Sunday. “He went a full circuit and jumped lovely and quickened away with Nico. 

“It was all very good and now we will rev him up and hopefully have him right for Punchestown. It was lovely ground here today and he loves that, so hopefully it will be like that in Ireland.

 “Nico could not be more pleased with him and said he feels as good as ever. We will see whether we can beat Sizing John now and we will only know that when we take him on. If Sizing John gets the trip going our pace he will probably out-sprint us, but hopefully we will make it hard for him by going a good gallop.”

Greg Wood tips for Monday

Redcar

2.20 Ventura Gold 2.50 Gramercy 3.20 Redicean 3.50 The Grey Warrior 4.20 Torrid (nap) 4.55 Golconda Prince 5.25 Spirit Of The Vale 5.55 Benjamin Thomas

Windsor

2.00 Lethal Lunch 2.30 Radjash 3.00 Light Of Air 3.30 Bluff Crag 4.00 Know Your Limit 4.30 Broad Appeal 5.00 Shifting Star 5.30 Dashing Poet (nb)

Kelso

2.10 Buckled 2.40 Rosquero 3.10 Harry The Viking 3.40 Blue Hussar 4.10 Sky Full Of Stars 4.40 Hey Listen 5.10 Urban Kode

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