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Volume 20 No. 41
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Breeders’ Cup ratings on NBC create talk of another Classic race in prime time next year

Putting a horse racing event on prime-time television was an experiment for NBC, but based on the better-than-expected ratings for the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic, there’s a good chance it will air in prime time again next year, said Jon Miller, NBC Sports president of programming.

“My strong recommendation would be to continue based on the tremendous success we had this year,” Miller said last week.

The one-hour show, which featured long shot Fort Larned winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic, aired live on NBC from 8 to 9 p.m. on Nov. 3. It earned a 2.0 rating and was watched by 3.1 million viewers. The rating was up 100 percent and the viewership number up 94 percent from last year, when the Classic was on ESPN and earned a 1.0 rating and was watched by 1.6 million viewers.

Miller said NBC’s average Saturday night rating has been below 2.0, in the range of 1.6 to 1.7.

“Anything that was in that range, we would have been happy with,” he said. “We didn’t want to put the network in jeopardy. We didn’t want them to regret the decision that they worked with us on. We were just hoping to stay kind of flat. So the fact that we exceeded what the network normally does was a great discovery and surprise for everybody.”

Horse racing’s Triple Crown, and particularly the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes when a Triple Crown is at stake, historically has done well in terms of ratings. But not so for the Breeders’ Cup, which features more than a dozen races for different types of horses — fillies, grass runners, 2-year-olds, etc. — and culminates with the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

This year, in particular, NBC didn’t have a good reason to hope for a high rating because there was no “super horse,” like Zenyatta, running in the Classic. This year’s Triple Crown race winners, I’ll Have Another and Union Rags, didn’t run in the Classic.

Before the broadcast, Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and founder of Pilson Communications, which consults with sports leagues and sports properties about TV deals, expressed skepticism that the event would work. But after the Breeders’ Cup, Pilson said in an email to SportsBusiness Journal that the rating was better than he expected it to be. “Actually, not a bad rating for a Saturday night against four very good college football games on CBS, Fox, ABC and ESPN,” Pilson said.

Miller said that NBC will have a meeting with Breeders’ Cup officials before making a final decision on whether to broadcast it in prime time again in 2013.

Miller also said that having the event at Santa Anita Park, in the Los Angeles area, may have helped viewership because of the presence of celebrities and the warm, sunny weather for people looking for some escapism on the East Coast. The Breeders’ Cup is scheduled to be held there in 2013, but a site has not been named beyond that. There has been debate in recent years about making Santa Anita the permanent home for the event.

“That is not up to me, that is a decision for the Breeders’ Cup board,” Miller said, “but certainly having a permanent destination and a permanent home for a property like this can only help it and make it an even bigger event.”

Breeders’ Cup CEO Craig Fravel said a decision on where to hold the 2014 Breeders’ Cup would come before the first quarter of next year. “We are very pleased with the rating,” Fravel said.