Equestrian writer Jane Thompson ponders what the future might hold for equestrian sports coverage, as the challenges of a changing media environment start to bite.
FEI President Ingmar De Vos is one of many urging equestrian sports to become more appealing to the media and therefore the mass market. “Meet the challenges of the digital age” is a worldwide catch cry across all disciplines of our sport.
The FEI has declared that media-friendly presentation is a key element in ensuring coverage on television, the internet and in print publications. The sports that succeed in growing their media profile will have secure Olympic futures, we are told.
Equestrian sports’ inclusion in the Olympics may be at stake, but there is also so much more that could be gained from better media coverage, such as increased visibility and accessibility of our sport, and greater acceptance by the mass market. With greater audiences comes the potential of greater sponsorship, more prize money, and growth in numbers participating.
To grow the profile of equestrian sports, I believe we need to take a different approach to what we have been doing for years. We have unsuccessfully tried to compete for media coverage with rugby and cricket here in New Zealand and are making no progress. In fact, it is probably now even worse than ever.
Equestrian fans have lapped up alternative media, especially social media, where they can easily keep up with results and the action, including via online broadcasting. But in order to grow our sport, we need to focus on the potential fans and those on the periphery of our sport. We need to make sure people know where they can access our sport, providing them with easy ways of seeing, hearing and learning about horse sport and help them become fans.
We have to be proactive as media organisations are either unwilling or unable to seek out potential stories. It is up to equestrian sports to provide good pictures and stories, more than just who-won-what, but interesting articles about the personalities, the inspirational tales, the heartbreaking twists – the “back stories.”
Sounds simple right? Unfortunately, and as usual, it’s not. There are many complexities involved. People working in the “equestrian media” in New Zealand are few and usually part timers. Many are questioning whether it is sustainable for them to continue. The hours required to provide good media services at events are considerable, and do not just include the hours spent at each event. The work and time getting post-event stories and results out is considerable.
While some involved in equestrian media come from a background of traditional journalism, others are trying to establish businesses in modern media such as online broadcasting and the increasingly important social media. Many of these could do more, and rise to the challenge but currently only at considerable personal cost. And that is not sustainable.
In the last decade or so, much has changed in the world of media and especially in the way news is delivered. When I covered the 2004 Athens Olympics, we accessed the internet via patchy dial-up and there was no social media. Internet access and social media is now part of most people’s lives and this has meant significant changes in media organisations, with more to come. How do they create a sustainable business model in this climate? Media outlets are struggling to keep up, keep relevant and keep financially viable. We all love being able to read the news on our phones and computers so we have moved away from newspapers. We also don’t often bother buying magazines, which have detailed articles on events that were 3-4 weeks ago. We have already sated our appetites for that information during and immediately after the event.
These mainstream media challenges affect our sport. After years of continual restructuring, media organisations do not have enough journalists or photographers on staff to send out to cover local events like they once did. It therefore comes back to event organisers to send previews, stories and results through, along with good photos, in the hope that there is room and an inclination to publish an equestrian story. If we can provide good video and good angles for stories, we may even be able to get it on television, but this usually has to be pitched to TV well before the event.
NZ Horse & Pony, through its owners Fairfax Media, now puts coverage of significant equestrian events on-line via the Stuff news website and focuses its monthly magazine on equestrian lifestyle articles rather than event coverage. So far the feedback on the new look appears to have been mainly positive and hopefully the 50-year-old publication can now join other lifestyle magazines as being one of the few magazine genres trending upwards with their readership. It also means equestrian sports are getting improved coverage in on-line news, but we must provide this news to them, and in a timely and well written way with good photos. No good photos? Limited, or no on-line coverage is the likely result.
Over the last 50 or more years, Equestrian Sports New Zealand (ESNZ) has produced a regular magazine, The Bulletin. While this is largely an “in-house” publication, the last few years it has been available for general sale in various outlets. Looking at ESNZ’s yearly financial reports, the magazine has been losing money for a while now, and this year the loss was significant. I understand subscriptions continue to dwindle. The long-term editor has recently resigned, so don’t be surprised if there are changes ahead for this publication. While going on-line would be one obvious choice, the dilemma for ESNZ remains on how to get the information to those people who are not into social media or websites. And yes, there are still a number of these people – and they include some sponsors.
Some suggest it is ESNZ’s role to provide media co-ordination and support to events and organising committees, as well as taking a strategic leadership role in this area. There is no media/communications person on staff at our national federation, but there are contractors providing media services to the individual disciplines and also High Performance.
Each discipline has taken a different approach to publicity and the media, depending on how things have evolved, their finances, and the current thinking of their management and board. There is little co-ordination, and frequently disciplines compete against each other for media space.
But is it really ESNZ’s job to provide or co-ordinate media services? With so many disciplines, so many events, and a continual struggle to make the books balance, the federation takes the approach that individual events have to step up to the mark, both with social media and mainstream media. Can High Performance funding go further to support more media services? The finances for HP are a mystery to me, but I do know that most New Zealand events struggle to break even financially and rely heavily on volunteers.
At some events, course builders and event directors may get some compensation for their huge hours and effort, but normally if there is a media officer they are volunteers with varying levels of expertise. I recently attended an event where the volunteer charged with the media job looked at me blankly when I asked if I could go on her circulation list for media releases, before she asked me what a media release should have in it. Rather than discourage these people, what can we do about supporting them? How do we encourage new people into taking up the roles of telling our stories? Some fresh perspectives may be just what we need.
Popular equestrian publications, websites and Facebook pages, including this one, report that coverage from equestrian events is inconsistent and rarely timely. Mainstream media just won’t pick up poorly written or late media releases. Events that are not proactive won’t get coverage, unless something terrible happens at that event. Does the well-meaning publicity/media officer have the skills to handle a crisis or incident that is being played out in both mainstream and social media? Having good relationships and reputations with media outlets can be crucial to getting good stories published or to air, and keeping the bad ones managed appropriately.
The role of on-line broadcasting is becoming increasingly important for our sport. A recent arrival on the media scene in New Zealand is Equestrian Live, which delivers live coverage from many events. This is currently reliant on individual events hiring its services to provide this coverage. In order for Equestrian Live to develop and enhance broadcasting, the industry will need to provide more consistent and sustainable support.
There’s that word again. Sustainable. What is sustainable for the people involved in delivering equestrian media services? What is sustainable for the national federations and event organising committees?
Of course, I believe it is important to take a professional approach to managing media and that this is a skill worth paying for. It is worthy of being high on the list of financial priorities, in my view. However, I naturally would say that, having been doing this for years mainly as a volunteer. But I think it is too important right now to leave it to the way we have always done publicity. If you have good publicity and coverage then the sponsors will be more interested.
I think it is time that equestrian sport put more focus on ensuring it gets good publicity and media coverage. We can’t just leave this to volunteers trying to fit this in around their real jobs.
Now is the time to push and build equestrian sports’ brands using a modern approach which includes social media and livestreaming. We need to promote our sport to people outside of our cosy equestrian network, not just more of what we are currently doing, which is preaching to the converted. We need to push our sport harder into mainstream media by providing them with good material, good stories and top-rate photos and video. We need to make every effort now to keep our sport in the Olympic portfolio and in the limelight.
You may well disagree. I look forward to reading your views below. I welcome a robust discussion on the way forward but surely we can all agree that we need to grow interest in equestrian sport. This isn’t just a New Zealand issue, it’s a worldwide issue. Let’s change or we will be changed anyway, and that will probably mean being left behind, and continuing to struggle for good coverage. If all I have done by writing this article is increase awareness of the issues involved, so people can make more informed decisions and comments, then I will have achieved my goal.
Thanks to all those who donated their time to help in this article’s evolution.