David Owen

Horse racing is not an Olympic sport. Yet a subsidiary of the venerable but surprisingly forward-thinking Jockey Club is establishing a growing reputation as a provider of services that help other sports organisations, including national governing bodies, to run their operations efficiently.

Since October 2014, Jockey Club Services (JCS) has offered a variety of back office and support services such as ticketing, procurement, loyalty programmes and finance and accounting – the sort of things the club does for itself in the process of operating 15 British racecourses – to third-party organisations in British sport.

The client list on its website includes a number of county cricket clubs, but also British Fencing, Badminton England and Table Tennis England.

Last week, it was announced that UK Athletics had appointed JCS to manage its financial processing function.

In a modern business environment in which organisations are often encouraged to contract out as many non-core functions as possible, it struck me as interesting that any sports body – let alone one founded in 1750 – should be out there marketing its expertise in things like sandwich sourcing and superior wi-fi provision.

So I asked for an interview – which two key members of the team, Paul Fisher, chief executive of Jockey Club Racecourses, and Rob Quick, director of JCS, were kind enough to break into their bank holiday Monday to provide.

It turns out the kernel of the idea was formed while the Jockey Club was undergoing its own consolidation.

Jockey Club Services has offered a variety of back office and support services since October 2014 ©Getty Images
Jockey Club Services has offered a variety of back office and support services since October 2014 ©Getty Images

“Jockey Club Racecourses used to be 14 separate businesses with 14 separate ticketing systems,” said Fisher, who tells me he used to be on the board of Gillingham Football Club.

“Ten years ago I took the decision to consolidate a lot of those things into one business.

“We centralised a lot of those functions and made quite a lot of investments. This gave me the idea we could extend this to other sports.

“When I saw we could sell tickets for events like Cheltenham Festival from a centralised ticketing department based in Northern Ireland, I thought, ‘Why aren’t other sports doing this?’”

Fisher confirms that he and his colleagues did look at following the outsourcing route themselves, but decided that if they could “onboard” they would a) save money b) collect valuable data and c) offer customers a better service.

“Every penny we make, we reinvest back into the sport,” he says, adding that use of ticketing companies would result in money and data leaking out of sport.

While horse racing is a year-round pursuit in the UK, there are peaks and troughs of activity, so involvement with other sports, whose peaks occur at different times, can help to smooth out work volumes.

Quick also sees the ability to work on different sports and events as a plus point with staff. “The variety helps motivate them,” he says.

Selling expertise gleaned while running the core horse racing business can, moreover, help to cover the cost of the capital investments in racecourses that the Jockey Club has seen fit to make.

“We made a huge capital commitment to installing wi-fi at all Jockey Club racecourses so everyone can connect to decent wi-fi,” Quick says.

“There was a huge learning curve; we can offer our expertise around that learning curve.”

The standard contract length offered by JCS is three years. So far, according to Quick, all clients who have reached this point have opted to renew.

Table Tennis England chief executive Sara Sutcliffe, front row, far left ©Getty Images
Table Tennis England chief executive Sara Sutcliffe, front row, far left ©Getty Images

One of these is Table Tennis England whose chief executive, Sara Sutcliffe, describes them as, in this case, “the ultimate early adopter”.

In a brief summary of their experience with JCS, Sutcliffe says the relationship has nurtured better behaviours as well as improved efficiency.

“I used to sign about 40 cheques a month,” she says. “Now it is about two.”

At the same time, the employee count in Table Tennis England’s finance function has been cut from three and a half to one and a half.

Georgina Usher, chief executive of another JCS client, British Fencing, explains that the availability of 24/7 online financial support at no extra cost, along with improved financial controls, motivated her organisation’s decision to become a customer.

“The Jockey Club purchase order system has given us better budgetary control and a cloud-based solution which allows our budget-holders to view their financials remotely at any time,” she says.

I ask Fisher whether there is any reason why JCS need restrict itself to either sport or Britain and he concurs that, while “focusing on the UK was the right thing to do from a start-up point of view”, there is no reason not to try to expand internationally.

Indeed, the business has already had experience of overseas tenders and was recently approached by what Quick describes as “an American franchise who are very interested in what we do”.

Fisher says he can see JCS becoming “an event-out-of-a-box organisation”, which I take to mean a one-stop shop.

The business is, he concludes, “a fantastic extension of the Jockey Club brand”.

It is certainly an enterprising and imaginative undertaking that appears quietly to be helping a growing band of UK sports organisations, in the Olympic space and beyond, to get the most bang out of their hard-earned bucks.