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By Bradford Cummings
Oftentimes, the racing industry loses sight of what is important when trying to market its product. Talk of increased handle, while necessary for the bottom line of racetracks, does not change the public perception and momentum of a sport that has continued a slow and steady slide over the last 20 years. In order to grow this sport, racing needs new fans, not old fans making more bets.
So when the ratings came out for the Kentucky Derby and most recently the Preakness Stakes, it was a breath of fresh air and a much-needed shot in the arm for the psyche of racing. The first two legs of the Triple Crown brought in an average of 13.4 million viewers, the most since 1989 when Sunday Silence won both Classics over Easy Goer in a spirited East vs. West rivalry.
Individually, the Kentucky Derby brought in 16.3 million viewers with a 9.8 rating and 23 share, up 2.1 million viewers from last year. The Preakness came in at a strong 10.9 million viewers, pulling a 6.8 rating and 16 share. This number was up 3 million viewers from last year's version with Big Brown easily pulling away from the field.
For those not familiar with the television ratings system, the Derby's 9.8 rating means that 9.8% of all households with televisions were tuned into NBC's telecast on the first Saturday of May while the 23 share means 23% of all televisions in use watched Mine That Bird pull an unprecedented upset. That means nearly a quarter of all Americans watching television showed an interest in racing's biggest event.
Perhaps most significant was the true lack of a compelling storyline going into the race. Most of the favorites had been sidelined before the Derby, and morning line favorite I Want Revenge was scratched the morning of the race with an injury, leaving what has been proved to be an overrated colt from the Louisiana circuit in Friesan Fire as the betting choice. And while other sports have the ability to build audience throughout the course of a 3 hour game, the fact that a 50-1 shot won the race would have had virtually no effect on the ratings because of how quickly the telecast ends.
Much credit must go to NBC, which did an admirable job selling the event throughout the week prior with promos on mainstream mainstays like the Today Show and investing in a solid marketing campaign. The fact a long shot won only added to the mystique of the Derby they so effectively sold.
That momentum allowed for the male vs. female storyline to be created with Rachel Alexandra and the unintended positive consequences of media coverage from Mark Allen and Ahmed Zayat's conspiring to keep her on the sidelines. Proving the old adage there's no such thing as bad press, the Preakness well out performed every other running this decade except for Smarty Jones in 2004, which brought a 7.7 rating and 23 share.
Of course, all of these numbers are irrelevant without some perspective and comparison to other top events in high profile professional U.S. sports. While the Kentucky Derby will not be in the same league as the Super Bowl anytime soon with its 42 rating, racing's biggest day in 2009 stands incredibly strong with other major championship equivalents.
The final game of the NBA Championship from last year, in a matchup of the two most storied franchises in the league, drew only 12.6 million viewers. The Stanley Cup Playoffs featuring the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins never saw more than 6.8 million folks tune in to a game. The Daytona 500, the most prestigious race in NASCAR, was down this year to a modest 15.95 million television fans. Even America's Pastime peaked with just 15.49 million at home spectators during last year's final World Series game.
Something the ratings do not take into account is the large number of racing fans who watch and wager on events like the Triple Crown races and Breeders' Cup at a local track or simulcast site. Kentucky Derby Day is the biggest day of the year at some tracks, and those in attendance are not counted as television viewers.
|SPORTING EVENT||VIEWERS (MILLIONS)|
|Super Bowl (Steelers vs. Cardinals)||95.4|
|2009 Kentucky Derby||16.3|
|World Series Game 5 (Phillies vs. Rays)||15.49|
|NBA Championship Game 6 (Lakers vs. Celtics)||12.6|
|2009 Preakness Stakes||10.9|
|Stanley Cup Game 6 (Red Wings vs. Penguins)||6.8|
This ranks the Kentucky Derby as the second most watched professional sporting championship of the last year, a fact few in the industry would have assumed. And the news is actually better than it looks. Wedged in at around 6 p.m. EST and potentially distracted by the dinner bell or an eventful Saturday, a viewer more likely schedules their day around the Derby coverage whereas a typical championship game appears during the primetime hours of 8-11 pm. That coupled with the lack of build up for the average racing fan as evidenced by the paltry ratings of preps like the Florida Derby, Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby, means racing has a legitimate opportunity to capture the imagination of the public if marketed correctly.
With drug issues and safety concerns being taken seriously, there will be an opening for racing to breeze through. Will we take the opening and shoot through like Mine That Bird's last to first rally on May 2nd? Will we look at what we have and figure out how to sell this beautiful sport to the masses beyond the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes? Can we turn the Breeders' Cup into a legitimate championship that builds from January on?
The good news is we can.
Liberation Farm celebrates the many horsemen and horsewomen who strive each day to make things better for horses and those who work with them. To learn more about Liberation Farm, click here.
Previous Good News Friday subjects: Father Chris Clay, The Race for Education, Military Appreciation Day at Keeneland, Kentucky Oaks Pink Out for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, Mary Lee-Butte and the Blue Grass Farms Chaplaincy, Mary Jo Pons and the Radio Reading Network
Copyright © 2009, The Paulick Report
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