What will horse sport look like beyond the Covid-19 pandemic?

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File image. © Mike Bain

Around the world, sport horses are kicking back, enjoying a break from the competitive arena.

They have no idea what Covid-19 is, nor the devastating economic impact it has wrought around the globe.

The pandemic has upended horse sport, as it has every other sporting code.

Restrictions imposed by governments around the world are aimed at containing the virus — at least to some degree — but the economic toll is in the trillions of dollars.

Mass gatherings are universally banned and it would be a bold individual who predicts what the world will look like in a post-Covid-19 environment.

Perhaps a vaccine will be developed over the next year, rolled out across the globe, and life will eventually resume where we left off.

That is the most optimistic view. However, it is more likely there will be ongoing changes that will affect many aspects of life.

While countless millions of people have more fundamental concerns, such as whether they will have a job and can afford to pay the bills in the months ahead, the horse lovers among us are starting to wonder what their beloved sport will look like once the pandemic subsides.

I foresee worrying headwinds for horse sport. These headwinds will be equally crippling for other sporting codes, but horse sport has several features that will amplify these challenges.

Let’s gaze into the crystal ball:

Money

Think global recession. Economies are contracting. It would be nice to think that economies will bounce back fast after the virus is controlled, but that isn’t going to happen.

International tourism will be dead for a considerable time. That’s a lot of money that will no longer be circulating in economies. Behemoth airlines will be in desperate trouble. Countless businesses will have failed. Industries that support those businesses will feel the flow-on effects.

When times get tough, businesses retreat to their core functions. They cut ad spending and they cut sponsorship.

Sponsorship is about exposure, and businesses will probably feel that curtailed sporting codes will hardly be able to deliver that in the foreseeable future.

It would be nice to think that the big sponsors have deep pockets and an altruistic outlook, but the reality is that they will be suffering as much as any other business. As one commentator astutely pointed out, the pandemic has brought to an end the longest bull run on the United States share market in its history, yet within days of the pandemic biting, some corporations were in trouble.

We have yet to learn how much the pandemic has affected the FEI.

Clearly, sponsorship will be affected. There is no horse sport, so there is nothing to “bring to market” in terms of TV rights and bums on seats at major events.

Below the elite level, without competitions, there will be no event levies payable to the FEI.

The FEI is, of course, not the only global sporting body with such problems, but that doesn’t make them any less acute.

And many of the issues confronting the FEI will also be faced by national horse-sport bodies. Incomes will be taking a hit and such organisations tend to run on tight budgets. It is hard to imagine that staffing at all levels of horse sport administration will remain unaffected for too long.

Transport

While it might be very cheap to fuel up the horse truck at the moment, the prospects for travelling further afield in the medium term are not encouraging.

Airlines are in serious trouble. Their international return will be very gradual, indeed.

Some countries are enjoying more success in controlling the virus than others, and the return of global travel will be a nightmarish mosaic of bans, restrictions, and quarantines, depending on the status of each country.

Countries have effectively invested billions in their efforts to curb the virus, and they are hardly going to welcome travellers from remaining virus hot spots.

This will have a two-fold effect. First, international travelers are unlikely to be fronting at elite horse sport events as spectators for a long while. There will be risks involved in travel, and costs are likely to rise because cost structures for airlines are sure to change.

Second, moving horses and support crew will face similar issues. It will be harder and more costly. Questions then arise as to whether it will be economic to do so, especially if sponsorship and prize money are reduced.

Spectator-less sport?

Spectators bring vibrancy and emotion to big sporting events. But these will be the last things to be restored, given the risk of virus transmission.

There is, of course, the option of staging top-level events without spectators and pocketing the television rights. After all, sports fans will be hungry for some live action.

This could work well for the likes of tennis, where the world’s elite could slug it out on court in the top tournaments without fans cheering them on in the stands. It would work, too, for the likes of top-level football, where TV rights are worth a lot of money.

But will it work so well for horse sport? Unfortunately, horse sports do not attract megabucks for television rights.

Events are expensive to set up and stage, international horses and competitors may have trouble getting there, and there will be no or limited income from spectators. The broadcast rights may not be enough to make it worthwhile.

No doubt someone will do the math and work out whether this is worthwhile.

Complicating the picture is the sure knowledge among top-level administrators that, come what may, horse sport needs to be kept in the public consciousness. Some elite loss-leader events may be necessary. That may well mean throwing cash at some events, but where will that money come from?

Yes, top-level horse sport has something of a reputation for being a monied enterprise. And some of that may well be what is politely termed “old money” — cash that has come from generational wealth.
But these individuals don’t keep their cash in the bank. They invest it, and will be feeling the pain as much as the next wealthy individual.

Flag bearers at the 2014 World Equestrian Games. © FEI
The future?

Horse sport is arguably too big to fail. There are dedicated fans and equally dedicated competitors who live and breathe horses.

They will be back. It is the collateral damage that remains unknown.

Followers of horse sport at all levels must brace for difficult times. Sponsorship dollars will be hard to find. Many people will find their incomes reduced, which means less cash available to compete at grass-roots level, pay to watch elite events, or cover cable subscriptions.

It is all about the discretionary dollar and, sadly, all sports will struggle in this sphere.

To recover, costs will have to be trimmed, and that may well mean job losses. The various disciplines are going to have to be innovative, yet also proceed with caution. They must walk and trot before they can canter.

Horse welfare must be at the forefront, too, as the industry can ill afford bad headlines if owners find themselves stretched in caring for their animals.

The world of horse sport will not be as it was — at least not for a long time. But it will be back.

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