From the horse’s mouth: Ralph Straus on the commercial growth of equestrian’s seven disciplines

With the International Equestrian Federation having overhauled its commercial strategy to focus on each of the sport’s seven disciplines, commercial director Ralph Straus explains the importance of the changes in expanding equestrian’s offering to potential partners.

From the horse’s mouth: Ralph Straus on the commercial growth of equestrian’s seven disciplines

As a term, the notion of equestrian is as complex as it is overly simplistic. On the surface, it is an all-encompassing concept that defines horse sport. However, the truth opens the door to seven distinct disciplines: dressage, jumping and eventing - the Olympic trio - are joined by reining, vaulting, driving and endurance. All are sports in their own right, each of them regulated by their own rules and possessing their own markedly different fanbases.

For Ralph Straus, the commercial director of the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), understanding the differences between the seven sports, as well as the need to clearly distinguish between them, has been fundamental in the renovation of the global governing body’s commercial strategy. 

“What we discovered during the comprehensive research study is that the people who are interested in jumping have a different demographic profile to people that are interested in dressage or in vaulting,” he explains. “Different people from different demographic backgrounds are visiting those events. Dressage is more family-orientated, jumping is more male, vaulting attracts quite young audiences given its Cirque du Soleil flavour.”

According to a study carried out by the FEI, the sport of equestrian possesses a fanbase close to 750 million across its various strands, with up to 75 per cent of those female depending on the discipline. Many were found to have families, while also possessing a higher than average income and an inherently brand loyal character. However, as singular entities, each sport brings with it its own possibilities.

The initial stage of the federation’s research, Straus says, has been crucial in directing its follow-up work. What the differing demographical demand has shown is a capacity for equestrian to attract a wide range of commercial partners.

“If you look at it from a company point of view, depending on the sport, there are different commercial partners involved in the sport,” he continues. “If, as an external example, you look at the automotive sector audiences, they are totally different depending on the brand. Where one brand may be more focused on premium positioning, another could want to associate more with the outdoors. From that perspective, the premium brand would more likely gravitate towards a sport like jumping, while the other might be better suited to a sport like eventing, which is always organised outside and is muddy by nature.

“We learnt through all this that the FEI is not governing one sport, but is actually governing seven different sports. Each sport has a unique target audience, different potential partners, different formats. The disciplines are connected through one common denominator and that is the horse and the passion for the horse.”

Facetious though it sounds, to underestimate the power of the horse itself in the commercial strategy of the sport is to fail to comprehend the size of the global market. Estimated to be worth an annual €300 billion, 60 million horses and ponies are involved in the sport, with the industry providing an estimated two million jobs worldwide – not only in the training and coaching stakes, but in the equine fields of nutrition, stabling and medication.

As Straus highlights, much of equestrian’s following comes through an interest in the animal rather than the complexities of the competition.

Equestian's global market is thought to be worth €300 billion across its various disciplines.

“A lot of people are not necessarily interested in the top competitions, nor in the FEI as an organisation,” he says. “What they are interested in is the horse. That’s something that, as an equestrian federation, we have in common with them.

“Therefore, in terms of our content, part of that has to be based around the top competitions, but we have also had to develop a new content strategy, with a lot of the content focused on the horse itself – things like travelling with horses, fashion for horses, medication, nutrition, the top places in the world to ride a horse. The focus has to be on the horse in order to engage with a wider fanbase.”

Equally important in the development of the sport, however, is eliminating the perception of a sport still defined by tradition and elitism. The sport has grown immeasurably in recent times, with new markets opening up in South America and China, alongside longstanding homes in Europe and North America. The FEI’s statistics suggest that more than 37 million individuals ride a horse at least once a week – competitively or otherwise.

It is a participation figure that supports the commercial director’s belief that the federation is enjoying some success in tackling preconceived ideas about the sport – both in terms of accessibility and in disbanding antiquated misconceptions of class.

“Some of these perceptions are not in conformity with reality,” he maintains. “If you look at the idea of it being a very elite sport, I don’t believe it is. If you look at the number of participants, France has the third biggest Olympic association due to the many riding schools and pony clubs.

“The accessibility to horse sport – like with tennis or football – is definitely there. Of course, going to the absolute top is a different discussion, but it is no different to Formula One or a lot of other sports.

“On one hand, the sport is very traditional in that it has a lot of traditions – the three Olympic disciplines came from a military background. A lot of these sports are more than 100 years old. They have been organised for centuries. There is a lot of tradition in the sport, which makes it unique.

“At the same time, though, new technologies are introduced and there are a lot of young people involved in the sport.”

Despite equestrianism being a traditional sport with an important heritage, it very much embraces technology and innovation. The FEI’s partnership with Longines mirrors this nicely. The Swiss watchmaker is a heritage brand that invests heavily in the development of cutting-edge time-keeping and data-handling services which allows fans to more comprehensively follow different equestrian competitions.

More generally, though, the decision to consciously divide equestrian into its seven constituent disciplines has affected the entire commercial structure of the FEI, Straus says. Where previously the body combined the most valuable competitions in one deal, it has now taken a more focused approach by attempting to meticulously pair each of its sponsors with the most appropriate discipline.

FEI statistics suggest that more than 37 million people ride a horse weekly.

“Sport is going away from simply being about brand exposure and as much media exposure as possible to customised partnership offerings,” he suggests. “We have a unique audience in the equestrian community – it’s predominantly female, affluent, highly educated, very brand loyal. And the partnerships we look to establish are very customised in order to match those demands.

“We are also trialling incentive-based deals with partners at the moment, whereby they can receive a reduction or an increase in their investment depending on the success of the partnership and the exposure.

“We look for brands that fit with the dressage brand in terms of having similar values and positioning. For example, companies that are both classy and premium which would resonate with a dressage audience that enjoys high purchasing power.”

From a branding perspective, the federation has sought to underline these nuances by creating different identities for each of its seven disciplines, focusing on the unique aspects of each one and providing all seven with their own bespoke digital strategies.

“We launched last year Facebook pages for each of the disciplines,” Straus explains. “Jumping, for example, now has its own FB page and its own community. It makes a lot of sense and those pages are growing quickly. Now, the fans have an opportunity to just consume the content they really want to see. They don’t have to go to the FEI page, which features all the different sports. They can go straight into the content they enjoy most.”

Seven different Facebook pages were launched by the FEI in 2017, with 12 different digital channels dedicated to bringing horse sport to its fans through video, images, articles and graphics. Collectively, they have amassed a following of upwards of one million, with a weekly reach of 17 million. It is a set of numbers that accentuates the sport’s growth and increased commercial prospects.

Of the decision to split FEI content across its seven disciplines while also maintaining overarching assets, Straus explains its significance in allowing the sport to cross-promote the various strands across its differing demographics.

At the same time, though, it allows for a strong focus on each individual discipline. One result of the digital overhaul was a 400 per cent increase in the viewership of the FEI’s social and online channels in 2017 alone. On Facebook and Instagram, the federation’s accounts have seen follower growth of 800 and 700 per cent respectively.

Similarly, FEI TV – the federation’s over-the-top (OTT) subscription service launched as far back as 2009 – has provided commercial partners with opportunities to engage with the sport’s digital-savvy community. According to Straus, the equestrian community is more technophile than traditionalist, which provides more than a hint as to where the future lies for the sport.

The FEI World Equestrian Games took place in September at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina.

“The world is changing with technology and innovation,” Straus states. “What’s happening in the arena, providing information, digital screen graphics, additional statistics and analysis on how the horse is jumping and how it’s landing after the jump can all be improved with technology.

“It can be used for fan enhancement, for analysis, to increase the sport’s performance. Around the sport, there are definitely a lot of innovations and changes that can be made.”

“We are working with SAP at the moment to develop an e-judging league, where we give people the chance to judge dressage via an app – both on-site and remotely.”

Indeed, tradition is by no means a criticism to be levied upon a sport steeped in history, nor is it a barrier to developing innovative sponsorship opportunities. The FEI’s partnership with SAP, the German-based software corporation, is just one of a number of commercial deals signed by the federation as it seeks to transform its own B2B reputation while remaining firmly attached to its unique heritage.

One of these, he explains, is the arrival of an esports game on the equestrian scene - a pairing that would seem an unlikely fit based solely on antiquated perceptions of the sport. Nevertheless, with discussions ongoing with a partner in China - a huge market not only for the FEI, but also for the gaming world - it is a deal that makes perfect sense.

“It is definitely something that we want to do,” admits Straus, who worked on the launch of the Fifa eWorld Cup during a previous role at soccer’s global governing body. “Our Chinese partner - CNSI - is developing an esports game around equestrian, which will be launched in China early next year.

“Depending on the uptake in China, we are looking at opportunities to launch this in other parts of the world. Esports in equestrian is definitely something that we are very actively looking at. It will be launching soon.”

It is, perhaps, a fitting ambition for a federation that has placed great emphasis on the modernisation of its commercial, digital and content strategies. Having focused on dividing equestrian into its seven distinct disciplines, the FEI is now well positioned to benefit. As Straus emphasises, his is a sport on the rise: “I think those are the three key objectives, and we have developed a number of streams through which to implement them.”