CHANNEL Seven’s deal with the racing industry this week garnered the network a lot of positive publicity.

Some seemed to laud the station as the driver of a bright new free-to-air future for a sector that, once, was a major player in the free-to-air market.

The deal is hardly that. But it does perform an important role by increasing the amount of racing on FTA, lifts the credibility of the sport and bolsters its claims to be a provider of premium content for mainstream audiences on days other than when the Melbourne Cup, Derby or Golden Slipper is run.

There are very few sports like footy, rugby league and soccer, where free-to-air and pay broadcasters will spend vast amounts ($1 billion-odd in the case of AFL and NRL, and $160 million over four years for soccer) for regular product which becomes a staple of the schedule.

Racing is not likely to gallop into the foreground of the mainstream sports television world. Nor is it going to earn rights fees, or at least not much, for its product. It simply doesn’t rate that highly.

One industry player this week recalled that during talks a few years ago about telecasting one of the sport’s major meetings, network executives told him at that time a Three Stooges movie from the 1940s would rate higher on a Saturday afternoon.

Small wonder then that racing cannot count on a cash windfall of the kind the major football codes get for broadcasting their product on FTA. It’s not alone, of course. Many other sports which are no longer ratings winners or as popular as they once were have to pay the production costs themselves to persuade the FTA channels to telecast their events at all.

Save for the Victoria Racing Club, which earns a substantial sum from Seven for the four days of the Melbourne Cup carnival, racing is in the same boat.

Its industry-owned broadcaster TVN will provide a large proportion of the pictures and supply some of the on-air talking heads for the broadcasts through the spring and autumn from Melbourne and Sydney races which the station will show over the next two years. Seven will contribute with some production costs also.

But the station’s investment is largely in kind – time on the screen.

Still, its executives are not daft. Racing, bar Cup week, might not be a huge rater, but Seven’s number crunchers would surely have noticed the explosion in the gambling business (through the development of corporate bookmakers, the growth of exchanges like Betfair and the fightback by Tabcorp to hold market share) which has produced a splurge in marketing and advertising by the wagering sector. One observer suggested the wagering companies could be spending a collective $120 million on such marketing. Seven will hope to harvest some of that in advertising.

Racing’s business model is not like the football codes, cricket or motor racing, where a TV deal is essential to provide a substantial slice of the sector’s revenue, helping to underpin its very existence.

For racing, it’s all about the gambling turnover. If the sport is able to generate a higher turnover as a result of more eyeballs, then it’s a win – and it might earn more through this channel than it could have through a traditional rights deal.

It’s also important for public perception. There is a feeling that if you are not on free-to-air, you’re not a major sport. Seven’s FTA exclusivity should motivate it to build and develop its product and grow audiences.

Racing’s core market is people who bet. But sports betting is increasingly popular with younger people, a majority of whom make their first bet on sports other than racing these days.

If racing is to hold its pitch, FTA is vital. But so also is building the narrative, the drama, the stories and the context to hook in new viewers and get the next generation interested. If Seven can do this then it will have done a good job.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.