Even in the digital age, television remains an essential component of any sport's business plan.
In fact, while live sporting events have always lured advertisers, their stock has risen even higher in an era when TV watchers routinely “DVR” much of their content and fast-forward through commercials. Sporting events appeal because they are somewhat DVR-proof, with a high percentage of live viewers.
Horse racing has struggled for many years to attract consistent mainstream television exposure. In 2011, when the consulting firm McKinsey & Company released its industry study for the Jockey Club, there was very little national mainstream coverage of racing outside of the Triple Crown events and the Breeders' Cup. The McKinsey report identified TV time as one of its nine recommendations.
As a result, racing turned to a logical partner. The NBC Sports Group was already broadcasting the Triple Crown and had secured the rights to the Breeders' Cup after six years on ESPN. Comcast's acquisition of NBC Universal was also unfolding, and beefing up sports content was clearly a priority for the new venture.
A pair of properties – an enhanced Road to the Kentucky Derby featuring several weeks of Derby preps and the new Summer at Saratoga – came into focus. Between them, over the last 18 months on NBC and its cable/satellite partner, NBC Sports Network, racing's television exposure has grown significantly. While the audiences may be relatively small, the new programming is making strides in its second year, said Jason Wilson, vice president of business development for the Jockey Club.
“With respect to the Road to the Kentucky Derby, if you look at the viewership, at least on the Sports Network shows, the viewership is up 20 to 30 percent,” said Wilson. “And on any given Saturday, when those races are shown, it's typically the top programming or one of the top two programs on the Sports Network. We're happy with that progress.”
NBC's collaboration with the New York Racing Association also continues this year as Summer at Saratoga returns next month, featuring 8 1/2 hours of coverage over six weeks during the historic venue's 150th anniversary meeting.
NBC Sports Group is pleased with the early returns, too. In addition to the boost in viewership of the Road to the Kentucky Derby, the Derby itself drew 16.2 million viewers, second-most since 1989.
Gary Quinn, NBC Sports Group's Vice President of Programming & Owned Properties, said the new components are complements to the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup coverage, which NBC has locked up through 2015.
“I think Summer at Saratoga is great live content on the Sports Network,” Quinn said. “It's done well, and its done well on NBC also. The Breeders' Cup was a great success last year. It was the first time it was back on our air in seven years. It did very well.”
NBC produced the first prime-time hour in Breeders' Cup history Nov. 3rd with the broadcast of the Breeders' Cup Classic from 8-9 p.m. ET. Based on last year's success, Quinn said the prime-time show will return for this year's event and likely next year as well, since Santa Anita will host the Breeders' Cup in both 2013 and 2014.
“Having that West Coast venue gives us the opportunity to put the Classic in prime time,” said Quinn. “It's also a perfect backdrop with the venue itself. It's beautiful, with kind of a celebrity feel to it. It's a very upscale, lifestyle type of event, where everybody comes all dressed up. There are a lot of different, really cool elements to it, much in the same way that Churchill and the Kentucky Derby have that cool elegance.”
In addition to prime-time exposure, racing should also benefit from NBC's growing sports portfolio. Last year, Summer at Saratoga certainly saw a ratings boost by airing during NBC's coverage of the Summer Olympics. NBC's broadcasts of the recently-concluded hockey playoffs, which coincided with the Triple Crown, produced the most-watched Stanley Cup Finals since at least 1994. In August, NBC will kick off an unprecedented deal bringing live TV coverage of every game on the Barclays Premier League schedule – including 174 games from the highly-popular British soccer league on NBC and NBC Sports Network. Major League Soccer is also a recent edition to NBC's lineup.
On Directv, NBC Sports Network recently moved from its channel position of 603 to 220, putting it in close proximity to other sports networks, including the NHL Network, the Golf Channel (another NBC partner), the NFL Network, and of course, ESPN. This month, NBC Sports Group completed a move to Stamford, Conn., where it built a 300,000 square foot state-of-the art facility on a 30-acre campus. Sound familiar? ESPN has its own campus not too far away in Bristol.
While the trade media like to stir up TV wars, Quinn downplayed the idea that NBC's long-term strategy is to take on ESPN.
“I think ESPN has an 11,000-day head start,” he said. “We're just out to carve our own niche and grow the properties that we have. I don't think we're out to go head-to-head with them. We're just trying to build on what we have right now and continue to grow.”
Either way, horse racing could get a push from its affiliation with a blossoming sports broadcasting empire. And both parties see room for growth.
“We want to grow the sport,” said Quinn. “We love the live action and the storytelling. And it's been great content for us on both NBC and NBC Sports Network. So we're trying to expand it across the calendar as much as we possibly can.”
“I see huge opportunities in two places,” said the Jockey Club's Jason Wilson. “One is just generally in July and August. All you have is baseball there, and you also have some pretty good racing. If we can figure out ways to build out racing not just at Saratoga but some other venues, that would be great. And then obviously, the fall programming, if we can figure out the bridge between Summer at Saratoga through to Breeders' Cup, that would be awesome.”
But Wilson believes racing's strategy can't rely on just one network or on television, period. For one thing, the Jockey Club pays a lot of the production costs for Road to the Kentucky Derby. It's not cheap, and Wilson said he's looking for ways to defray those expenses – through sponsorships and other partnered deals. Still, he said the investment in more TV time has “unreservedly” been a good one.
“It would be one thing if all we did was put races on TV. That's not a very good strategy,” he said. “What we've done is built up a lot of assets around the television product that are very supportive of it.”
Those assets include the America's Best Racing promotional tour, the “ABRV” featuring a group of young “ambassadors” promoting the sport, online components at the America's Best Racing website, and media coverage. Next year, Wilson hopes to focus on webcasting around the various races, which would include interviews, in-depth analysis, and other pre- and post-race coverage.
“We're putting stuff in place where it's not just TV but there's an entire promotional aspect around it,” Wilson said.
Personality-wise, racing's TV package features a little something for everyone. There's a mix of veteran broadcasters like Randy Moss, Bob Neumeier, Tom Hammond, and Bob Costas as well as racing insiders including Donna Brothers, Gary Stevens, and Jerry Bailey. This year, Michelle Beadle, who came over from ESPN, added a new spice to the Triple Crown coverage, designed to appeal to more casual fans. Joe Kristufek's Racing 101 features during the broadcasts educate new fans about the sport.
There could be one other benefit to the TV platform the Jockey Club and its partners are creating. Perhaps it will make it easier to diffuse some of the negative publicity that often haunts the sport.
“What this does is it starts to give us a platform to be a lot more proactive in getting our stories out,” said Wilson. “Then if bad stuff comes, it comes in the midst of a wider context that we've created about all the good stuff racing has done.”
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