SBJ/October 29-November 4, 2012/In Depth

Prime-time exposure

NBC conducting ‘bold experiment’ with coverage of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but will it be enough to boost viewership?

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NBC will air the Breeders’ Cup Classic in a one-hour show Saturday night, the first time the horse race has been on prime-time television, but will it be enough to give the event a ratings lift?

The Kentucky Derby has historically drawn big television numbers, as has the Belmont Stakes when a Triple Crown is at stake. But outside of those two races, which are the first and third legs of the Triple Crown, the popularity of the sport and its television ratings have been languishing for years.

“This is a bold, new experiment we are trying here,” is how Jon Miller, NBC Sports president of programming, described the plans to show the Breeders’ Cup Classic during prime time. Miller said NBC has done well “making big events bigger,” and will take that approach with the Classic.

In January, NBC struck a four-year deal to broadcast the Breeders' Cup. The network already had the rights to the three races that make up the Triple Crown.
Photo by: Getty Images
That being said, Miller won’t make any ratings or viewership predictions. “You are not going to get me to give you a number,” he said. “The number will be what the number will be. But it won’t be for the lack of effort we are putting against it.”

The Breeders’ Cup Classic is a 1¼-mile race with a purse of $5 million and is the culmination of two days of championship horse racing that starts Friday at Santa Anita Park, near Los Angeles. There are 15 races in all during the Breeders’ Cup weekend, with most of the purses ranging from $1 million to $2 million over the two days.

NBC Sports Network will air Friday’s races from 4 to 8 p.m. ET and the Saturday races from 3:30 to 8 p.m. ET, when coverage will switch to the Classic for the hourlong show on NBC.

In January, NBC struck a four-year deal to broadcast the Breeders’ Cup. ESPN had carried the event for the last six years and was considered for an extension, but organizers went with NBC.

“We made a decision to go to NBC and not a small part of it was the availability of prime time on the network,” said Breeders’ Cup CEO Craig Fravel.

Fravel said that having the Classic on prime time on the network this year was part of the deal. “As far as if we are in future years, that was left up to NBC,” he said. “We haven’t had a discussion, but we expect to, in 2013, again be in prime time with a Classic hour.”

Fravel and NBC officials would not discuss the terms of their rights deal.

Another reason for the switch to NBC, Fravel said, was because the Breeders’ Cup wanted to be on the same network
NBC Sports Network will carry the other races in the Breeders' Cup, then switch to NBC for the hourlong coverage of the Classic.
that broadcasts the races that make up the Triple Crown — the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes and Preakness. NBC has broadcast the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness since 2001 and the Belmont Stakes since 2011.

The NBC/Breeders’ Cup deal runs through 2015, concurrent with the network’s deals to broadcast all of the Triple Crown races. The Breeders’ Cup relationship, Miller said, cements the network as the home of horse racing.

The Triple Crown races are always run in the spring and the Breeders’ Cup in the fall. The Breeders’ Cup, which features horses from the U.S. and around the globe, usually determines the horses that win Eclipse awards, including Horse of the Year.

Breeders’ Cup officials want to position the Classic as horse racing’s fourth major, much like the major events in golf and tennis.

“That is the way the Breeders’ Cup wants to position it and that is the way we are going to position it going forward,” said Gary Quinn, NBC Sports’ senior director of programming and acquisitions.

Miller said, “To make the Breeders’ Cup the fourth major, that is not up to us to determine. But we are certainly going to give it the attention and the promotion and the showcasing a major event like the Breeders’ Cup deserves.”

Rob Hyland, NBC’s producer of the Breeders’ Cup, said he wants the coverage to mirror the tone, look and feel of the Kentucky Derby.

“Making horse racing cool, making it inclusive and making this event so that when you are at home you say, ‘Wow, one day I want to go to the Breeders’ Cup,’” Hyland said. “People say that about the Kentucky Derby. We want people to say that about the Breeders’ Cup.”

Hyland wants the people who tuned in to see the Kentucky Derby this spring to tune in to the Breeders’ Cup Classic this fall.

One thing that is expected to help ratings is celebrities. Since the event is at Santa Anita this year, celebrities are expected to attend, as they have in the past when the event was held at the track in 2008 and 2009. Former ESPN host Michelle Beadle, who joined NBC’s celebrity show “Access Hollywood,” will be one of the reporters on the Breeders’ Cup show, Hyland said.

Additionally, the Breeders’ Cup purchased the rights to the classic song “The Best is Yet to Come” and hired Tony Bennett to sing it prior to the Classic race.

“He is a legend and I like the idea of having an entertainment element associated with racing,” Hyland said. “We challenge Churchill Downs every year to get a great anthem singer of note,” he added.

The Breeders’ Cup also could benefit by having the Notre Dame-Pittsburgh college football game on the network prior to the Breeders’ Cup Classic coverage.

This year’s event will be without a well-known horse, such as 2009 winner Zenyatta.
Photo by: Getty Images
Still, the event is challenged by not having a well-known horse — like a Zenyatta, or a big Triple Crown-contending horse like I’ll Have Another, the horse that won this year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness — expected to run in the Classic.

“Is there a Zenyatta this year?” Hyland asked rhetorically. “No. But she was a very, very special horse. Is there a super horse? Probably not. But there are a heck of a lot of good stories.”

Although the plans for the one-hour show were not set by press time for this story, Hyland indicated that NBC may highlight Bob Baffert, who has won multiple Kentucky Derbies and may have the favorite, Game On Dude, in the Classic.

Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and founder of Pilson Communications, which consults with sports leagues and sports properties about television deals, said that what NBC is trying to do with the Breeders’ Cup is bold, but he’s skeptical it can work.

“The public falls in love with horses,” Pilson said. “Not trainers or jockeys. The problem is the Triple Crown horses are not in it.”

The general public is interested in the Triple Crown, but the Breeders’ Cup is something that, historically, only serious horse racing fans are interested in, he said.

The last two years, the Kentucky Derby on NBC drew more than 14 million viewers, while the Breeders’ Cup Classic, on ESPN, drew 1.6 million last year and 4 million in 2010, the year Zenyatta, a previously undefeated female horse, lost the Classic by a neck.

“It is what it is,” Pilson said. “I am not throwing darts at anyone. I am wishing NBC good luck.”

Both Miller and Quinn noted that the Breeders’ Cup originally debuted on NBC in 1984 and garnered bigger audiences when it was there. In 1988, the first year Nielsen measured audience figures, 5.3 million viewers watched the Breeders’ Cup. The numbers dropped from 2 million in 2005 to 994,000 viewers in 2006 when coverage switched to ESPN from NBC.

Quinn said the reason the event is being shown in prime time live on the East Coast is because it is being run on the West Coast at Santa Anita. Santa Anita has been named the host track of the 2013 Breeders’ Cup as well. The host track for 2014 and beyond has not yet been named.

Miller, pressed on whether NBC will use this year to determine whether to air the event in prime time on the network next year said, “I think we will take a look at it again, but it is our intention to keep it right where it is.”

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