(Originally published in the March 5, 2011 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
By Lenny Shulman
For an industry plagued in so many ways by a dearth of uniformity and cohesion, the lack of a single home—or any home at all for that matter—for its signature Triple Crown races represented just one more potential indignity.
For the past five years the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and the Preakness Stakes (both gr. I) called NBC home, while the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) was telecast by ABC/ESPN. Up until late February neither the 2011 Preakness nor Belmont, just scant months away, had national TV partners.
Happily, that situation was rectified with the Feb. 22 announcement that the NBC Sports Group had reunited all three jewels of the Triple Crown on the Peacock Network and that extended coverage of stakes races on the undercards of all three events, plus the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) the day before the Derby, would be available on NBC’s sister station, Versus. This resolution constitutes a win-win-win for Thoroughbred racing.
First, for viewers, it ends the confusion of where to tune in to find races, and it enhances the coverage of important graded stakes that are run on the same day as the Triple Crown races, a constant source of frustration for fans in recent years.
For NBC, it means the network can launch a full-on marketing campaign for the Triple Crown without worrying about setting the table only to have another network gorge itself when a horse vies for the Triple Crown at Belmont.
For the sport of Thoroughbred racing, it increases the possibility that a major sponsor will come aboard, for the first time since VISA did so, and help underwrite the entire package, including possible bonus money for the connections of any horse able to sweep the series. A major sponsor means more commercials and advertising that reach the new eyeballs that racing so desperately requires. It means legitimacy and hopefully higher ratings.
Ironically, the process of re-establishing one home for all three races was made easier by the demise of Triple Crown Productions, an entity that previously had handled the television rights of the three races, but in reality was more an arm of Churchill Downs and the Derby than a representative of all three events. During the last five-year span when one network had all three races, 2001-05, three horses entered the Belmont gate with chances to win the Triple Crown—War Emblem in 2002, Funny Cide in 2003, and Smarty Jones in 2004. TV ratings for those Belmonts trounced those for the Derby, and when the TV contract was up after the 2005 Triple Crown, the New York Racing Association rightfully felt it deserved a bigger share of the TV revenue pie than it was getting. When Churchill/Triple Crown refused to budge off its 50/25/25 formula for the three races, NYRA bolted to ABC/ESPN and a more lucrative deal.
Now that Triple Crown Productions is defunct, the most recent negotiation unfolded quite differently, with each entity—Churchill Downs, the Maryland Jockey Club, and NYRA—able to enter into stand-alone negotiations with whoever was interested in televising its event, with the main suitors said to have been NBC, ESPN, and FOX. While the money reaped by the host organizations isn’t what it was 10 or even five years ago (unless you’re talking the Olympics or the Super Bowl, ratings and advertising are down in sports just like in most other arenas), at least each of the three was able to secure the best deal possible.
While finding a title sponsor for the 2011 Triple Crown will be tough given the tight time frame, having the trio of races together on one broadcast platform will position the sport well in the coming five years to secure such a deal. While that falls within NBC’s purview, there is the possibility of collaboration with the racetrack entities as well.
NBC should be congratulated for letting bygones be bygones and aggressively going after the Triple Crown package five years after it was pulled apart. We all fancy ourselves as TV critics, and there are no free lunches no matter the network—for each Hank Goldberg or Kenny Mayne thankfully lost, you pick up an unctuous Bob Costas—there can be no doubt that NBC has done an admirable job with these races since first broadcasting them in 2000. Ratings for the Derby and Preakness have climbed decisively, while the Breeders’ Cup has suffered a 50% loss of viewers since leaving the network a couple of years ago.
The view from here is very positive.