The main event: how the FEI is building the commercial profile of eventing

With 407 million fans across 15 key markets, eventing has a strong base of global support from which to build for the future. Ralph Straus, the commercial director at the FEI, lays out the global equestrian body’s strategy for growth, and what keeps people flocking to witness this ultimate test of athleticism, endurance, and the trust between human and mount.

The main event: how the FEI is building the commercial profile of eventing

France's Tony Parkes shows control to clear a high jump

Known as the ‘triathlon of the equestrian world’, eventing unites three disciplines, demanding the highest levels of skill, courage and versatility from horse and rider in a sport that tests all aspects of horsemanship. It has its roots in the military, originating as a competition designed to examine officers and horses for their fitness and suitability that provided a basis to compare training standards between cavalries of different countries. Modern eventing retains the core theme of pushing horse and rider to their limits in the most challenging conditions.

“Eventing is a bit muddy, it’s a bit dirty, it’s about determination and perseverance and great levels of courage,” says Ralph Straus, commercial director at the International Equestrian Federation (FEI). “It’s one of the Olympic disciplines and it’s unique in that it tests three sports in one event.”

Eventing was first introduced at the Olympic Games in Sweden in 1912 and comprises dressage, cross-country and jumping on consecutive days, with the same horse ridden throughout the competition. Cross-country is designed to test the speed, stamina and jumping ability of the horse, as well as the rider’s knowledge of pace and the use of their equine partner, and a typical course will have between 25 and 45 specially constructed jumps over solid obstacles such as logs, woodpiles and stone walls, with water and ditches increasing the technical difficulty.

Dressage sees the athletes complete a sequence of compulsory movements in the arena, where they are examined on balance and rhythm, showcasing the poise and elite training of the horse and its harmony with its rider. A third component – jumping – is a display of athleticism, control and accuracy, which aims to prove that the horses have retained the suppleness, energy and trust necessary for them to continue.

For riders like Michael Jung, a three-time Olympic gold medallist from Germany who is considered one of the greatest horsemen of the modern era, eventing provides an absorbing challenge that requires not only ability and preparation, but intelligent execution.

“Eventing is difficult,” he explains, “because the horse needs to be good at three different disciplines and usually has a weakness for one. And so the skill between horse and rider is in overcoming that weakness.”

For the FEI, helping fans to understand the rich nuance and depth of its different sports – while encouraging respect and enthusiasm for equestrianism as a whole – is a significant priority.

Rider and mount must maintain perfect equilibrium as they brace to enter the water

“Last year we launched the Discipline Strategy,” says Straus. “This acknowledges that our seven disciplines are all different; they all have different types of fans and different types of engagement – but there are commonalities that unite them all across the board, including, of course, the horse. Eventing is one of our most exciting disciplines with great potential to grow.

“It has a very specific kind of demographic, and it’s basically very much of a lifestyle sport. Eventing fans are commonly not just people who follow eventing from afar, but tend to actively practise it and have it within their day-to-day routine, whether it’s grooming competitions or participating in events.”

Indeed, 14 per cent of the registered active riders in equestrian sport participate in eventing, and the sport also attracts followers from across the other disciplines, with 54 per cent of equestrian fans being interested in eventing. But while reaching new supporters is a key part of the FEI’s current strategy, there is no less emphasis on exciting its current fanbase – estimated at around 407 million followers across 15 key territories – through creating more and better targeted content.

“Our aim is to promote equestrianism in all its forms, and appeal not only to the equestrian market, but to the non-equestrian markets as well so that levels of interest and engagement are increased,” Straus explains. “We are continuing to engage and keep our current fanbase and to drive new ones who may not know about the FEI, or which may not be familiar with what we do, by providing them with content that is of appeal.

“For example, an eight-year-old may love horses but doesn’t know what the FEI is about. The way to get to him or her is not to go posting about events, but by writing about how to take care of your horse and the best ways to do so and engage them at that level.”

Another target audience for the FEI are non-equestrian fans who may be open to following a new sport, and the organisation is intent on finding compelling new ways to do so. “Those fans need to be provided with more information that will draw them in,” says Straus. “We launched FEI Campus in June 2017, which is a global e-learning platform and is totally free for the equestrian community and anyone interested in learning from a certified, trusted source. It provides information for people looking to make a living in equestrian sports, and who need to get their education and their courses through the platform.

“There is another part of the platform with information on ‘horsemanship’, which is about every other possible topic in the equestrian industry. It is being continuously enriched with content and there is a lot of interesting information about all sorts of things related to the horse. Again, the idea here is for us to consolidate all the information that’s out there and hire experts in each of the disciplines to provide information that is useful for our stakeholders.”

This strategy for engagement and growth comes in the wake of an increase in the availability of over-the-top (OTT) and digital platforms, making digital consumption easier and more prolific than ever before. While IMG, which is a broadcast partner of the FEI, remains a significant player in the sport’s broadcast strategies, the global governing body is moving further into the digital landscape.

Liz Gregg picks up the pace at the start of the gruelling cross-country challenge

It has now been able to establish more control over its output than ever before, to the benefit of fans who now have a wider range of touch points with their sport.

“We have created individual bespoke Facebook pages and hubs for each of our disciplines which showcase the type of content that our statistics and our research shows that eventing fans like to immerse themselves in, and which is specific to each of the fans of those disciplines,” says Straus.

“An important part of that is YouTube; we now have more non-FEI competitions being streamed on our channel entirely free. We also live stream FEI events on the channel as well – so there’s FEI World Cup content being shown, for example. We also have FEI TV showing all the competitions that are behind a paywall – for example, we have FEI Eventing Nations Cup competitions being a part of that.

“We also used the #twohearts campaign as part of our communication strategy. Originally, it was launched in the build-up to Rio and was about using the unique selling point, the USP of our sport – which is that we have two athletes – to communicate our messaging around our sport, not only to equestrian but also non-equestrian fans. All content that reflected that relationship was posted under that hashtag and it was hugely successful, so we decided to keep it and place all of our horsemanship-related content under it.

“In addition, we have engaged in media partnerships and digital partnerships across the world – we signed a partnership deal with China National Sports International (CNSI) in October which is geared towards promoting equestrian sport in China through social channels in particular.”

China, which is predicted to have 76 per cent of its urban population considered middle class by 2022, represents a massive potential market for eventing.

However, as well as looking outwards to new, untapped regions, the FEI intends to concentrate on growing its considerable support in existing major markets. “For us, it’s not about trying to be everywhere at the moment,” explains Straus. “It’s more of a case of continuing to solidify our presence in central Europe as well as the US, which is a huge market for us.”

Equestrian sport is rare in that its 4,250 events are operated by separate organising committees. However, the FEI works closely with each organiser to help develop all aspects of an event, which includes sending FEI representatives to the event to work alongside local organisers, as well as creating reports and feedback on areas of improvement or for investment.

Eventing now has 647 international events worldwide, which represents a 48 per cent rise since 2007. There are also now 79,200 registered horses globally, reflecting a 50 per cent increase within a decade. The top five countries in organising events in the discipline are the USA, with 97, followed by Austria with 75, Britain with 72, France at 46 and Ireland with 39, indicating that most events take place in the USA and continental Europe.

“All our numbers are up,” says Straus. “The number of national federations that are now affiliated to the FEI has also gone up, so with all of this, the level of professionalism has risen across the sphere. If you look at the number of five star events that we have now, there’s more than one a week. That can only be positive for the sport and for the riders looking to travel to the best events and compete. So the standard of the events has risen very significantly.”

Events and competitions demonstrate variation in the number of days and order of disciplines, with each event allotted a different category and level. CCIs, for example, are three-day events, whereas CICs are one-day competitions which allow for more entries. The highest level of competition is marked by four and five stars, and includes internationally celebrated events at Badminton, Burghley, Kentucky, Luhmulen and Adelaide.

Major championships are usually held over four days, with the senior cycle laid out over a four-year Olympiad: an Olympic Games, an FEI World Equestrian Games, and FEI European Championships in the two years in between. The youth teams – comprising a young rider, junior and pony – compete at European Championships each year.

In an effort to increase the sport’s global appeal, the FEI launched the FEI Nations Cup Eventing in 2012. The event has since grown to include nine events, taking place across Europe and the USA between March and October as a team series open to all nations, with points based on team results at a select set of competitions throughout the season.

Watery obstacles push horse and rider to the limits of athleticism and trust

As the only team eventing series, the FEI Nations Cup Eventing, which enjoys around 20,000 people attending on average, has proved a unique opportunity for the FEI to raise the sport’s global profile by tapping into local passions. “People love competing for their countries,” Straus says. “Riders love it and they’ll tell you that it is a very special feeling. It certainly has helped raise the profile of our events and we want to continue building on that and expanding it one step at a time.

“This is a valuable series in terms of offering team experience to a wide range of athletes and we’re thrilled that so many have taken up the challenge.”

The 2017 FEI Nations Cup Eventing epitomised the success of the new series: 18 nations took part, with several countries fielding teams for the first time, including Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The FEI is also seeking to stage the event in a broader range of countries to further boost the sport’s exposure.

“Our aim is to bring eventing thoroughly to venues that are fully capable of delivering an event that will do the discipline proud, but also to try to make it more global,” Straus expands. “The rest kind of follows after that – when you have organisers that are professional, that have a clear strategy and a vision that is aligned with ours, then of course the spectator numbers go up.”

This greater exposure cannot come at the price of reducing the quality of the competition, however. “We have a comprehensive bidding document that prospective bidders need to abide by,” says Straus. “It’s about the facilities and the structure for the horses and the competitors but as part of that we also have commercial requirements – the inventory that needs to be available, the level of host broadcasting that needs to be abided by, what facilities and availabilities are there to make the lives of the press as easy as possible.”

Attracting big sponsors is crucial to eventing competitions and competitors, and influences where events are hosted as well. The supporter base has much to recommend to prospective partners. Eventing fans are 55 per cent female, and families, too, make up 64 per cent of fans. With 70 per cent of eventing fans being of middle to high income, and the typical fan being brand-loyal and an early adopter of trends, the discipline provides a fanbase with a high interest in luxury goods, which makes up a large proportion of the FEI’s sponsorship across the sport.

High-end watchmaker Longines, for example, was the official timekeeper and watch of the 2017 FEI European Championships Eventing, and premium footwear and apparel brand Ariat agreed a long-term association with the FEI in 2015. OTTO, SAP and Boehringer Ingelheim are also key partners.

“It’s essential that a commercial sponsor’s values align with our own,” says Straus. “And there is an understanding that every discipline is different and promotes different values, and this shapes the strategy of approaching specific types of sponsors.”

As a sport that is not generally considered mainstream, promoting eventing to new audiences does not come without challenges. “The complexity of our sport, whether that means the number of events and the type of events, means we need to provide clarity to fans,” Straus says. “Our sport is steeped in history and is quite traditionalist, which is part of what makes it very special, but it’s about finding a balance between moving that into a different dimension and further forward in terms of how we portray our sport and get information out about it so newcomers can understand it, too.”

There is no doubt that eventing is succeeding in its aim to lure a bigger audience – the FEI World Equestrian Games in 2014 attracted 500,000 spectators, making it the third-most attended event that year. “In the future, we will see more events and more riders competing,” says Straus. “And with that, more fans. The FEI World Equestrian Games held in Tryon in North Carolina in 2018 will be another important showcase for our sport and we are expecting even higher numbers.”