TV networks say ‘nup’ to the Melbourne Cup – soon you might, too

The Melbourne Cup is one of a number of very different things:

a) A fashion show that happens to be situated on the perimeter of a 3,200-metre horse race on turf.

b) A mid-afternoon office party that involves lucky dip dollar bets and champagne in coffee cups and also happens to be centred around a 3,200-metre horse race on turf.

c) A mild annoyance about half an hour after the Reserve Bank board announces its decision on interest rates.

d) A 3,200-metre horse race (on turf) where odds and jockeys and track conditions are studied and debated, and serious money is on the line.

The final scenario is true for only a tiny portion of our population, yet it’s how Tabcorp is trying to shape the entire event from next year onwards, by placing a number of heavy restrictions on whatever TV network ends up broadcasting the Melbourne Cup.

Why does a betting company get to put restrictions on anything? You may be typing this into the comments right now, or exclaiming (perhaps without context) to the other parents on the soccer sidelines.

Well, by offering the Victoria Racing Club an estimated $25 million a year, for six years.

By doing so, they managed to secure the broadcasting rights, including free-to-air television, digital and pay-television. It is now attempting to sub-license the free-to-air rights to a commercial network, much as Optus did with the recent Women’s World Cup rights. 

But unlike Optus, who didn’t insist that mobile phone coverage be the focus of the Matildas’ rise to glory, Tabcorp believes the Melbourne Cup – and, in turn, the free-to-air broadcast – should focus more on betting. Less fascinators, more live odds tracking. 

Although it outbid all other parties, terms have not yet been ironed out between the VRC and Tabcorp for the local broadcasting rights. The VRC granted Tabcorp permission to attempt to sublicense the domestic rights, after which it will agree to the deal. 

So, it may all fall apart soon.

Arguably, it may be in the interest of the future of the Cup if this deal didn’t go ahead. The changing public opinion around the Melbourne Cup suggests the race that stops the nation may already be on borrowed time.

Because – to add a couple more options to the multiple choice question from earlier – the Cup is also:

e) A brutally public act of questionable animal welfare; the carnival atmosphere and benign acceptance of which indoctrinates us from an early age into the misbelief that the horses somehow enjoy racing, despite the whipping, training, and high-profile deaths.

f) A stunningly public endorsement of, and injection of money into, the gambling industry – an industry which has created very few real winners, and many, many more losers, leaving families and lives in ruins.

So, yeah, you could say the Melbourne Cup is on borrowed time.

Whipping and gambling are two of the harder sells in this day and age. As Bob Dylan once sang, quite possibly about horse racing, the times, they are a-changing. 

But, as it stands now, the Melbourne Cup is still mostly about b) (that’s the champagne in coffee cups one).

The Melbourne Cup is still fun, and frothy and only tangentially about gambling and animal cruelty, if you don’t really pay attention. This will change, but such change is often slow. Tabcorp seem to be kicking it along, though, by insisting that the mental link between gambling and the Melbourne Cup be pounded into every brain.

The AFR reported, via four separate anonymous sources, that Tabcorp is – for all broadcasts from 2024 onwards – demanding a 50 per cent share of all wagering advertisements, effectively halving the amount of gambling advertising any TV network with the sublicenced broadcasting rights would be able to sell to Tabcorp’s many, many competitors in the gambling field.

So those advertisers, for whom Melbourne Cup is Christmas, are stymied. (You could argue, in Tabcorp’s favour, this restriction may indeed drive up the cost of these remaining ad spaces by more than double, in which case, bravo. But that’s quite a gamble, even for a company with punting in its blood.)

Tabcorp also apparently wants to use its own Sky Racing commentators during the broadcast, exposing them to the wider free-to-air audience, and to integrate the TAB’s betting odds into their broadcast.

You know the bank of screens in the TAB section of your local pub – with the seas of green turf, and continuously cycling odds, and dense, text-heavy displays? Can you see a future where the live television broadcast feels like that too? Such fun! Pass the silly, oversized hat.

This will be the final year that Ten broadcasts the Melbourne Cup, after holding the rights for five years – and paying $100 million for the privilege. They clearly thought it was a worthwhile investment, because they entered into talks to extend the deal. They no longer feel this way.

Ten announced in late June that it had “declined Tabcorp and the Victoria Racing Club’s invitation to progress further in the process to secure broadcast rights for the Melbourne Cup Carnival”, and then proceeded to lay waste to Tabcorp’s shortsighted advertising and broadcasting demands.

“Throughout the course of the current negotiations, it became clear that the nature of the agreement between Tabcorp and the VRC would require a move towards a core racing and wagering-focused broadcast product,” a Ten spokesperson said.

“Given this likely change in focus combined with commercial constraints of the future agreement, Network 10 considered the preferences of its viewers and advertisers, and politely declined to move forward with the process.”

The preferences of its viewers and advertisers. Just consider that for a sec, because the language in this statement is more loaded than a diplomatic statement from the G20. The final part is important for Ten’s commercial considerations. But the first part — the viewers — is important for the fabric of the event itself. 

The very nature of these restrictions will in turn change the very nature of the Cup, dragging gambling to the forefront, and forcing fun office parties to confront the wreckage that hardcore gambling can do. 

Jenny from your office doesn’t gamble. Sure, she has a flutter on the Melbourne Cup, but that’s fun and she doesn’t even choose her horse, it’s drawn out of a bowl, and her horse was scratched an hour before the race anyway, so enough about Jenny. Because, now Jenny is reminded of the gambling odds constantly, and now she’s thinking about the sad inside walls of her local TAB, and the smell of cigarettes, and those tiny pencils, and now she cannot escape that this day is built around an entire dark industry, and not at all around fun hats – and also, in the way in which anti-gambling laws insist – every mention of the odds on TV now comes with an equal and opposite reminder of how gambling can, will, must ruin lives. Chances are you’ll lose. What is your gambling really costing you?

It’s a heavy thing to keep being reminded of as you drink a blend of orange juice and box wine in Meeting Room B. 

Even the fashion show element, the drunken voyeuristic as-if-you-would-ness which is the actual point of interest for at least 90% of people forced into watching the Cup will no longer be in focus (because we are forced; even if we enjoy it, you cannot work through the Cup and expect office relations to be normal afterwards). The fashion and fun won’t be the focus, not when the odds are changing, and people can be reminded that TAB now allows bet limits. Know your limits. Chances are you’ll lose.

Tabcorp, and more importantly the Victorian Racing Club, are playing with borrowed time. Because Channel Seven also recently pulled out of the negotiations, leaving Nine in what every single newspaper and website called last week a ‘one-horse race’. (That kind of headline is just too good to pass up. Something about gift horses and mouths.)

This significantly weakens the odds that Tabcorp will score a decent deal, given Nine holds the cards. They can fold, too – the anti-siphoning laws only dictate the free-to-air networks get the option to air it. They aren’t required to. Nobody is required to air the Melbourne Cup, despite it being deemed in our national interest to view it. Foxtel can swoop in, and buy the race – given it largely lives in pubs, this isn’t outside the realms of possibility. But they certainly won’t pay $20 million a year for the honour, as Ten did. 

Maybe an out-of-home media company might be able to get the rights for a song, broadcasting the race from its suite of digital billboards around the country, with local councils designating specially-licensed drinking areas under each billboard as the race is streamed across dozens of public sites. Imagine the Cup being broadcast on some of the larger billboards that line some of our busiest roads – there’d be fender benders galore come 3pm. The race would – in the most literal sense – stop the nation. Or at least traffic, until the towies arrive.

I digress. After all, gambling advertising might not even be a revenue stream for television broadcasters at all within the next six years, as momentum continues towards a total ban. Such a ban has already been the focus of a parliamentary inquiry, and received verbal bipartisan support from Dutton and Albanese. Like cigarette advertising, it seems inevitable that it will die out. 

As it stands, the rules for gambling ads during live sports broadcasts state that:

  • no gambling advertising or promotion of odds is allowed during play
  • no promotion of odds is allowed during breaks in play (such as half time)
  • no promotion of betting odds by commentators and representatives from gambling services (that are, or appear to be at the venue) are allowed from 30 minutes before play begins until 30 minutes after play.

If the event is on before 8.30pm, no gambling advertising is allowed within five minutes from the start and end of the match.

So they are already quite strict.

But wouldn’t you know – many of these limits don’t actually apply to horse racing.

Which is why Tabcorp’s restrictions are proving so damaging – and at the worst possible time.

The Melbourne Cup is the biggest day of the year for betting companies, and the Melbourne Cup broadcast is where they want to advertise. Why wouldn’t they, when the rules allow it. But it clearly wasn’t worth it to Ten to renew without the ability to maximise revenue from Tab’s many competitors, and it’s not too hard to extrapolate that Seven felt the same.

The draconian stipulations from Tabcorp reported in the AFR appear to have seriously devalued the broadcast rights of the Melbourne Cup, and have done so in what might be the final few years in which the advertising goldrush of gambling ads is allowed to continue.

They also threaten the many, many on-ground sponsorship deals, the millions upon millions spent by brands to feature in the Birdcage, the labels who pay to appear on supermodels, and –- in turn –- on televisions across millions of homes and offices and pubs on an otherwise uneventful Tuesday afternoon. 

The Melbourne Cup’s best days are numbered. In fact, the whole race may be in its final straight, or the last furlong, or on its way back to the stables. Perhaps it’ll be put out to pasture. (I’ve held these in for a thousand words now. I’m a stayer – but I’m only human). The question is whether the game’s social licence lapses before advertising gambling is banned – and in losing the ferocious competition for the rights to the Cup, the whole industry may have just lost some of its biggest backers.

It’s a heck of a ride.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.