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Volume 20 No. 42
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NBC all in with Triple Crown in play

With the potential for the first horse racing Triple Crown in more than three decades, NBC is devoting resources including cross-promotion on other NBC Universal-owned platforms, a record amount of television coverage, and a quickly produced documentary on race horse California Chrome to ensure a big television rating for the Belmont Stakes.

“We are promoting it everywhere, not just on NBC and NBC Sports Network; we are including all of our news shows like the ‘Today’ show, on CNBC, on our regional sports networks, all of our affiliates, you name it,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network.

NBC Sports has done similar promotions for other big sports events, such as the Super Bowl, NFL Kickoff, the NHL playoffs, golf’s U.S. Open and, in horse racing, the Kentucky Derby.

“I won’t make any ratings predictions, other than it will be high,” Miller said.

NBC Sports announced last week that it would devote 16 hours to race coverage, including 2 1/2 hours on NBC starting at 4:30 p.m. ET Saturday for the race itself. The other 13 1/2 hours of coverage will air on NBC Sports Network and will include a half-hour documentary that NBC Sports produced titled “California Chrome, the Unlikely Champion,” hosted by NBC Sports broadcaster Bob Costas.

Had Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome not won the Preakness Stakes on May 17 and set himself up to possibly win the Triple Crown, NBC Sports would have devoted about seven hours of coverage to the Belmont, Miller said. The last horse to win the Triple Crown was Affirmed in 1978.

NBC Sports’ coverage at Belmont will begin hours away from the finish line. Included will be a documentary on Triple Crown candidate California Chrome hosted by Bob Costas.
Photo by: NBC SPORTS GROUP (2)
“We had [the coverage plan] ready to go Saturday night after the Preakness and we pulled the trigger Monday morning,” Miller said. “It’s the most ever for the Belmont.” It surpasses the record 11 hours of coverage that NBC Sports devoted to the race across NBC and NBC Sports Network in 2012, when Triple Crown contender I’ll Have Another scratched the day before the race.

The Kentucky Derby always draws a big audience, regardless of the horses running; this year’s event drew 15.2 million viewers. But the number of people who tune in for the Belmont Stakes varies wildly, depending on whether there is a Triple Crown at stake (see chart).

The lowest viewership in the last 20 years was in 1996: No Triple Crown was at stake, and 4 million tuned in and saw Editor’s Note win. The largest audience came in 2004, when 21.9 million viewers watched Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones lose the Belmont by a length to Birdstone.

That 2004 running of the Belmont also drew a record crowd of 120,139 to Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., said David O’Rourke, vice president of corporate development for the New York Racing Association. The NYRA owns Belmont as well as Aqueduct and Saratoga.

As of last week, all of Belmont Park’s 26,000 seats from the dining areas to the grandstand were sold out, O’Rourke said. Those tickets are priced from about $1,000 at the trackside tent area to the lowest $20 grandstand seat. General admission without an assigned seat costs $10, and attendance always depends on walk-up business the day of the race, O’Rourke said.

The Belmont on TV

Year Network Avg. viewership (millions) Triple Crown contender Winner
2013 NBC 7.0 None Palace Malice
2012 NBC 7.7 None* Union Rags
2011 NBC 6.8 None Ruler On Ice
2010 ABC 4.7 None Drosselmeyer
2009 ABC 6.6 None Summer Bird
2008 ABC 13.1 Big Brown Da’ Tara
2007 ABC 4.9 None Rags To Riches
2006 ABC 5.0 None Jazil
2005 NBC 7.7 None Afleet Alex
2004 NBC 21.9 Smarty Jones Birdstone
2003 NBC 15.7 Funny Cide Empire Maker
2002 NBC 12.4 War Emblem Sarava
2001 NBC 6.8 None Point Given
2000 ABC 4.3 None Commendable
1999 ABC 9.3 Charismatic Lemon Drop Kid
1998 ABC 9.1 Real Quiet Victory Gallop
1997 ABC 8.2 Silver Charm Touch Gold
1996 ABC 4.0 None Editor’s Note
1995 ABC 5.1 None Thunder Gulch
1994 ABC 5.9 None Tabasco Cat
1993 ABC 6.4 None Colonial Affair
1992 ABC 6.7 None A.P. Indy

* Triple Crown contender I’ll Have Another scratched the day before the 2012 Belmont Stakes.
Source: NBC Sports

The race draws about 100,000 when a Triple Crown is at stake, versus about 50,000 when there is no chance of a Triple Crown winner. This year, LL Cool J will perform on Saturday and Frank Sinatra Jr. will sing “New York, New York,” traditionally performed during the post parade before the race.

“The over/under is 100,000,” O’Rourke said.

In recent years, NBC Sports has focused its Kentucky Derby coverage not just on the sporting aspect of the race but also on entertainment elements, including having entertainment reporters cover the celebrities who arrive on the red carpet at Churchill Downs.

That is not the plan for NBC’s coverage at the Belmont this year, Miller said.

“There will be celebrities there, but I think this is more of a historic event in sports,” he said. “It is something you almost have to watch.”