The dust – and turf – has settled after another excellent Cheltenham Festival. We saw some brilliant moments as well as more than a few emotional ones in a meeting at Prestbury Park that feels as though it will be talked about for years. We have written about the key moments from this year’s Festival elsewhere on the site, but there is one point that deserves a touch more being said about it, which is the attendance.
After setting a record for attendance in 2022, the Festival saw fewer people turning up to watch it this time out. Is there an obvious reason for why?
Over the course of the four days there will still more than 200,000 people that walked through the doors in order to watch some of the greatest jump racing in the country. Yet it was nearly 30,000 people less than the year before, in spite of the fact that the racing was as good as ever.
We know that the attendance on Gold Cup Day was down because of the cap put in place by the racecourse, but is there a reason why the other days struggled to get people to turn up as they had the year before? The answer is that there is no certainty, but we can read the tea leaves to get a sense of what happened.
2022 Was Post-Covid Excitement
The first thing that it’s important to acknowledge is that 2022 was the first year that racing could welcome a full capacity back since Covid all but shutdown sports attendance in the United Kingdom. Having been accused of being a reason for the spread of the deadly virus in 2020, the Cheltenham Festival was delighted to see crowds turn up in record numbers when the doors opened for visitors once more at the end of the pandemic. There was a sense of giddiness from those in attendance, to say nothing of a release after having been cooped up for so long in the year or so that preceded it.
As a result, we perhaps should’ve expected the attendance to be down this time around. Life has all but returned to normal for the vast majority of people now, with the site of masks becoming much less common than it used to be. As conversations around what the Prime Minister did or didn’t know rage on, the desire to just get out and do something is much less overwhelming than it had felt in March of 2022. As a result, ticket sales were always likely to be down on the previous year because there is less of a sense that our freedom to do stuff might be taken away from us again at any moment.
It’s A Cost Of Living Crisis
Whilst it’s important to acknowledge that a lot of people who would usually turn up at horse racing events won’t really even notice the cost of living crisis, there are definitely some who scrimp and save in order to be able to head to Prestbury Park every March. For those people, the rising cost of pretty much everything will have had a detrimental effect on their ability to attend the Festival this time around. Despite their desire to go, such people will have had to make a more sensible choice to spend money on food and heating rather than tickets to see the horse racing.
What makes this even worse is the fact that the cost of attending the Festival seems to go up every year. Even if you can afford the tickets, it is incredibly expensive to get accommodation in the Gloucestershire area every March. Should accommodation not prove to be too much for you, buying the likes of a pint of Guinness or a bite to eat will push most people over the edge. The reality is that entire experience has started to price some people out before the cost of living crisis is even taken into account, with that then being the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Just How Down Were The Attendances?
|Day||2022 Attendance||2023 Attendance||Difference||Percentage Drop|
|St. Patrick’s Day||73,754||62,429||11,325||15.49%|
|Gold Cup Day||73,875||68,500||5,375||7.27%|
It is worth looking at just how much the attendances dropped this year when compared to 2022. The table above is looking at how many people turned up each day last year, as well as what the attendances were this year and what the difference is, as well as what the percentage drop is.
The total drop in attendance between 2022 and 2023 was 39,027. That is a huge decrease across the four days, even if you take into account the fact that the smaller attendance on Gold Cup Day was forced by the decision of the Jockey Club to lower there maximum attendance for the enjoyment of those who turned up. It sold out and therefore could’ve sold more, but it was still a 7% drop on the year before and it is important to point that out.
Decreased Attendance Justifies Fifth Day Decision
For a long time, the argument raged that the Cheltenham Festival needed a fifth day. Even this year, Micheal O’Leary told ITV in an interview that if he was in charge of racing then he would’ve added another day to the meeting.
The counter-arguments to that idea included the notion that the quality of racing would be diluted and that attendances would struggle. Whilst we can’t say anything one way or the other when it comes to the quality of the racing, it certainly looks as thought the idea that attendances would drop has been proven to be correct looking at the figures.
The truth is that most people only have a finite amount of money to play with, so finding more to head to Prestbury Park for a fifth day would be all but impossible for many. Yes, strikes by people up and down the country, including rail staff, will have made it difficult for many to attend, but that isn’t the only reason why attendances were down this year and adding a fifth day would have reduced the crowds even further.
There will doubtless be discussions amongst those in power at the Jockey Club about how they can boost attendances for next year’s Festival, but the addition of a fifth day won’t be on that agenda any more.