Still re-inventing eventing: how Event Rider Masters is opening up the sport
Eventing fans - and eventing hopefuls - were glued to Twitter at nine o'clock last Wednesday evening as the chosen competitors for fifth leg of the 2017 Event Rider Masters (ERM) CIC series were announced to the world - one by one and in reverse order.
Finally they reached the line up's top spot: "We are very proud to reveal the legendary @NZEventing rider Sir @MTEventing is our No. 1 rider for 2017 #ERMeventing Leg 5 @GatcombeHorse!" Yes, with ERM it's hashtag central! The people at ERM are well into social media and into digital-everything that can make eventing more exciting and more accessible.
For this year - ERM's second series - legs one and two were in the UK (Chatsworth & Barbury) with ground breaking ERM contests in Germany (Leg 2) and France (Leg 4). Leg five is this weekend during the Gatcombe Festival of British Eventing - August 4-6.
The aim of the ERM organisation is to modernise and improve eventing so as to make it a better spectator sport and one that can better reward the riders and owners of eventing horses. It is, as they have stated from the start, "eventing re-invented".
They trim the normal four-day competition down to two, attract the world's best horses and riders with (in 2017) a £400,000 prize pot - and they live stream their exclusive television coverage around the world.
They have introduced live scoring and the 'Kiss and Cry' podium to "make a feature of the finish" - this puts the 'best so far' of the cross country starters onto the podium and then sends them packing as riders with lower scores come through.
In a very short time, ERM have made considerable strides towards opening up the somewhat closed world of eventing - making, for example, live scoring information available to spectators. Big screens at the dressage arenas carry live scoring as each combination's test continues.
To many this may seem an obvious development, but opening up what some saw as the 'dark arts' of judging is an adventurous move - one welcomed by many I have spoken to.
Going beyond this, ERM's technical sponsors, the software company SAP Equestrian Analytics have developed an App. This allows spectators to be their own judges of dressage stages of each ERM contest. At the click of a mouse, their scores are averaged and then scores announced - for instant comparison with those given by the judges.
This App has now achieved recognition by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) and will soon be used at FEI competitions.
ERM explains that as the App relies on wi-fi, it is less widely used by spectators at some of the more remote locations for major eventing competitions: "At each leg we have seen concurrent users in the hundreds of spectators rather than the thousands, but it is growing each time and now that SAP have a agreed a partnership with the FEI for all FEI dressage events to use the App, it is likely to grow further as it becomes the norm for spectators at such events."
ERM's live television coverage is bringing an international audience to British eventing locations - and now also to locations in continental Europe.
The 2017 series has so far had viewers in 113 countries - with 2,400,000 minutes viewed and an average 'dwell time' of 23 minutes. They also produce summary programmes which are shown on satellite channels - in the UK on Sky Sports.
The coverage is generally judged to be excellent. At the Barbury International Horse Trials they had eight cameras - including a drone. And for the Paris leg they had a number of riders wearing 'rider cameras' for the cross country.
Under different regulations these 'rider cameras' are more accepted at continental events than in the UK: "This innovation is another example of how we are continually trying to get across the speed, danger and excitement of riding cross country in our live stream and TV broadcast coverage in order to attract more fans to the sport."
ERM's live television coverage is supported by a commentary team of three in their mobile studio - a stats geek, an expert in the discipline and an anchor. During the cross country, the commentary relies heavily on statistical analysis - and is aimed to be jargon-free.
Away from the careful branding, the social media and digital streaming, ERM also take trouble to involve spectators and answer their questions. They have teams of uniformed #Mastermakers who tour around the arenas and cross country courses to help newcomers to the sport - and at Barbury they were kept pretty busy.
The ERM team is certainly having an impact in one important area of the sport - pushing up the prize money. The ERM series ends at the Blenheim Palace horse trials in the middle of September.
There, with a new title sponsor in the shape of Ssang Yong Motors, the first prize in the CCI3* will be £16,000, making it much the most valuable CCI3* prize in Europe, and the total prize-fund will be more than £50,000. An effective doubling of the Blenheim prize pot has been explained by investment from the new title sponsor and further support from ERM.
ERM have recently bolstered support for their venture by agreeing a deal with Land Rover - a company that has long been associated with the sport. Land Rover will continue to support several equestrian events, including this weekend’s Gatcombe's Festival of British Eventing, and, of course, the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials (August 31– September 3.)
It has been hinted that they may at some point in the future seek a venue in the Middle East or Asia. But it seems more likely that the USA beckons first. One eventing leader I spoke to said that a competition in Florida early in the year - and before the British season begins - would be a good start.