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Jumping Hurdles

At the end of this month, the sporting vision of the FEI (International Equestrian Federation)’s new leadership duo will be revealed. Matt Cutler got an exclusive preview of the future direction they would like to take the sport.

Thomas Bach’s Agenda 2020 reform movement has led every major international federation to identify what needs to be done for its sport to survive in the 21st century – and in doing so, ensure its remains on the Olympic programme.

However, whereas many sports federations are toying with implementing drastic change – reducing numbers of players, sizes of courts and game lengths – new FEI president Ingmar De Vos and secretary general Sabrina Zeender believe equestrian is in a “luxury” position, given the sport is currently experiencing huge growth.

In the last seven years, the number of events has increased by 83 per cent, registered horses by 78 per cent, riders by 67 per cent and prize money by 45 per cent.

We have a luxury problem – our sport is growing

“It’s all very good news,” says Ingmar De Vos, who was elected FEI president in December. “I like to call it a ‘luxury problem’ – our sport is growing, so I look at it from a very positive angle. If this is the type of problem we have to resolve, then we should be very happy.”

The global growth of equestrian has run in parallel with a growth in commercial revenues for the sport, something that was seen in December when the FEI signed new broadcast rights agreements with the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and the IMG agency.

The deals, which both run from 2015 to 2022, allow the EBU to show the the sport’s flagship events in selected European territories, while IMG will continue to distribute rights outside Europe. According to TV Sports Markets, the two deals are worth just over $10 million combined.

“Recently, there has been a growth in commercial revenue, helped in part to our very exciting partnerships with [watchmaker] Longines and [fashion brand] Reem Acra, but now TV is a strong revenue stream. I remember 15 or 20 years ago we had to pay to get on TV; now we are getting revenues from selling our TV rights and, importantly, it is growing,” says De Vos.

Sporting Vision
De Vos (pictured above), formerly FEI secretary general, swept to victory in last year’s presidential elections – receiving the two-thirds majority required in the first round of voting – to replace Princess Haya, who held the position for eight years. Zeender, who has been at the FEI since 1991, was officially given the position in January having served as interim secretary general.

The pair’s vision for the sport – potential changes to how it is presented, and how its various formats will be changed to make it more broadcast-friendly – will be presented at the annual FEI Sports Forum in Lausanne on April 27-28.

High on the agenda, says De Vos, will be a review of competition formats, while also identifying how equestrian and its three Olympic disciplines – dressage, eventing and jumping – can adapt to the move from a sport-based to an event-based Olympic programme.

“The focus will start with the Olympic disciplines, to make them more attractive to a larger audience and to increase TV audience figures,” he adds.

“We are a growing sport and we are very ambitious. Our sport is Euro and north American-centric, but we have seen development in all parts of the world and we are reviewing our competition formats to further increase the number of fans.

“One of the major manifesto points during my presidential campaign was continuity…we were very happy at the IOC (International Olympic Committee) Session in Monaco when the Agenda 2020 recommendations were approved, because we had already been doing lots of it, like with the Furusiyya Nations Cup in jumping, where we are now a worldwide series with an exciting final that is easier for people to understand. It is also much easier to televise.”

De Vos and Zeender say a key reason for equestrian’s rather imbalanced strength in Europe and north America – and underdevelopment in regions such as south America and Asia – has been in transporting horses to countries that are interested in equestrian, but have excessive sanitary and quarantine regulations and a lack of scope for temporary importation. Predominantly, this is because they have failed to distinguish elite-level athletic horses from regular livestock.

However, a public-private partnership between the FEI, OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) and IFHA (International Federation of Horseracing Authorities) has, since 2013, established a framework for temporary import conditions that keeps the risk of transmitting diseases at a minimum.

Breakthroughs are starting to be seen across the world, no more so than in China, where a Shanghai stage on the Global Champions Tour was introduced in 2014. Just seven years ago capital city Beijing, host of the 2008 Olympic Games, had to shift equestrian events to Hong Kong – 2,000 kilometres away – because it had better facilities and established quarantine measures to ensure safe passage for the sport’s central performers.

“In 2013, European horses were able to travel to Shanghai, which they hadn’t been before. That was incredible,” says Zeender. “Since then we have also been able to establish the World Cup Jumping China League, which consists of three competitions in Beijing. We hope to have similar successes in south America.”

Promoting the sport better and to a wider audience – by “making the horses bigger stars than perhaps they are” – is also a key strategy going forward, says Zeender. That is precisely why a ‘Horse of the Year’ will be awarded for the first time in 2015, she says.  

“Running up to the Longines and Reem Acra World Cup Finals in Las Vegas we had the marriage of two horses in a chapel,” adds De Vos. “We are investing in more global platforms – not only sports platforms, but those that reach out to a wider audience – to promote our stars. We have some very exciting people involved in equestrian sport and we really want to use them more.”

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