Reinventing eventing
by Florence Lloyd-Hughes
Event Rider Masters is the new kid on the block trying to shake up the venerable sport of eventing. Sportcal Insight ponders its chances of success. Author
30th June 2017, 09:12

Badminton Horse Trials, Burghley Horse Trials, Blenheim Horse Trials. Familiar names in UK eventing with a combined history of over 150 years and a cultural heritage almost unmatched at any other sporting occasion.

However, those same names are also synonymous with a sport that some accuse of being dated and in desperate need of a makeover.

Eventing is a sport so entrenched in tradition that any remodelling has to be subtle; yet however subtle, it still carries great financial risk. It is a daunting task for anyone to take on.

The brainchild of its founders, horse owners Christopher and Lisa Stone, Event Rider Masters has just entered its second season after a relatively successful debut in 2016. 

The launch of the series was a leap of faith for the Stones, who privately funded its creation with the help of several other investors, including rider and businesswoman Tara Glen.

The Stones and their team believed they saw a gap in the market, room for a season-long series that could be commercially driven and attract prolonged interest in a sport that often peaks with the four-year Olympic cycle.

The idea was to move away from the tradition of grand, individual events and one-off exhibitions and create a sustainable, modern and global event series.

France's Astier Nicolas at the inaugural ERM event at Chatsworth House

The series comprises existing meetings at existing venues but brands them under one umbrella competition, adding a much-needed storyline to the established eventing season.

Jon Wyatt, commercial director at Event Rider Masters, tells Sportcal Insight that such a series had been a long time coming as the era of “shorter versions of sport” has led plenty of governing bodyies to consider looking “for their answer to Twenty20 cricket.” Wyatt adds that it seemed “now was the right time”.

The main revenue stream for the series is sponsorship, and it predictably counts luxury brands such as Pol Roger champagne and wealth management firm St. James’s Place among its supporters, while it also has hopes of eventually securing a title partner.

This year, Wiesbaden in Germany and Haras de Jardy in France have been added to the schedule, becoming the series’ first international stops outside the UK.

Wyatt’s ambitious plans include taking the series to Japan by 2019, in the lead-up to Tokyo hosting the 2020 Olympic Games. 

However, it’s early days, and after a first year in which the series was completely privately funded, it is being partly commercially funded its second season, with the aim of being entirely commercially sustainable by the third edition next year.

Strong hospitality sales have helped prop up some of the series’ costs but it isn’t a secret that equestrianism is an expensive hobby.

This year, every session will be live-streamed on the Event Rider Masters website, while eight international broadcasters have picked up rights to show highlights of the second season.

The experienced Red Handed TV, the UK-based production firm which is the host broadcaster for the Extreme Sailing Series, has been appointed to produce this year’s coverage, requiring the largest outlay of funds for the series, according to Wyatt.

But the former managing director of UK-based agency FastTrack is confident that the investment will pay off, as around 100,000 people tuned into each live stream last year and the series has secured a loyal following that is “85-per-cent female.”

The series also has the much-needed backing of the FEI, equestrianism’s governing body, which has allowed the addition of reverse ordering and rolling podiums, previously taboo in the sport’s competitions, to add a bit more excitement to the coverage.

Sanctioning support from the FEI was facilitated by the fact that Event Rider Masters wasn’t regarded as a rival to the body’s pre-existing events, but simply as a re-packing and re-styling of what was already there.

Wyatt says that the FEI and ERM “both want to grow the sport. We are coming at it from a commercial point of view but they are coming at it from a participation point of view.”

British rider Oliver Townend is crowned champion of the inaugural Event Rider Masters series

Conversely, show-jumping’s Global Champions League, which also launched last year, clashed instantly with the FEI, which initially refused to sanction any of organiser Global Champions Tour’s events because it feared that the rival competition would take riders away from its own events.

The issue went to the Belgian competition authority, which eventually ruled that the FEI could not implement its so-called ‘unsanctioned event’ rule against the GCL.

The rule would have enabled the FEI to prevent athletes and horses from competing in an international or national event if they had participated in the GCL in the previous six months.

The two parties finally reached an agreement and signed a memorandum of understanding in January, but the European Equestrian Federation and the International Jumping Riders Club have continued to criticise the new GCL’s invitation system.

The concession that was agreed under the MOU resulted in a significant cut in the number of top-30 riders that could take part in the GCL, but the lucrative second season nevertheless includes 18 teams, at a cost of €2 million ($2.2 million) per team, and offers total prize money of €22 million.

With the FEI fighting to control the balance of power, participation and interest in the sport, Wyatt says of Event Rider Masters: “The individual events themselves have always been there but they’ve never moved onto a global scale. There’s not been any global media coverage of eventing outside of the Olympics. What we’ve tried to do is package up the sport and take the best of it and bring it forward to the 21st century.

“We created a series, it’s no longer individual events. The narrative finally makes it attractive to TV broadcasters. It was a simple fit.”

So, if it’s that easy, why has it not been done before? “Money,” is the short answer, according to Wyatt.

If ERM can ride out an expensive initial few years, it might just emerge as eventing’s answer to Twenty20 cricket.