By Bill Finley
The horse racing industry is happy with the coverage it is receiving on the NBC family of networks and NBC is thrilled with the ratings its broadcasts are receiving and the momentum it is seeing when it comes to televising the sport. The marriage between horse racing and television has often been a rocky one, but a new chapter is being written and the storyline is nothing but positive.
Not only has NBC widely expanded its coverage of racing, a sport that was all but abandoned by ESPN, but is reporting that ratings are climbing. The recent broadcast of the GI Whitney S. received the highest rating for any Breeders’ Cup Challenge race broadcast on NBC since the upset of American Pharoah performance in the 2015 GI Travers S. and the ratings for the Breeders’ Cup have risen 26% since NBC took over from ESPN. Those are just two of many statistics NBC is reporting that present a rosy outlook for racing coverage on NBC.
“We think the sport is thriving,” said Jon Miller, who is the president of programming for the NBC Sports Group. “The numbers are up dramatically on every single one of our horse racing properties. Last week, for example, the Whitney on NBC did 1.1 million viewers, which is a huge number. We’re seeing it everywhere with racing.”
NBC re-entered the picture when it comes to racing in 2011 when it began broadcasting the Triple Crown races. At the time, it showed just 23 hours of racing a year. That number is now up to 85 and there is at least one race on an NBC network every month of the year but December and February. It has also expanded to overseas racing, including the Dubai World Cup and the Royal Ascot meet.
“There are a lot of things working in our favor,” Miller said. “Racing has done a really great job of marketing and promoting itself with different organizations working really well. When we first came on board all we had was the [GI] Kentucky Derby, the [GI] Preakness and the [GI] Belmont. Since then we have added the Breeders’ Cup and the Breeders’ Cup Challenge races and they have really been the thread that has enabled people to stay engaged with horse racing from time the Belmont ends in June until the Breeders’ Cup in November. Plus, I think the sport is so well produced. We are blessed to have the single best horse racing producer that has ever done the sport in Rob Hyland.”
NBC has seen ratings gains with virtually all of its racing coverage. The three Breeders’ Cup Challenge telecasts so far this year have averaged 992,000 viewers, up 4% over last year. Last year’s Breeders’ Cup coverage on NBC and the NBC Sports Network reached over 5 million unique viewers. The Friday broadcast did particularly well, showing an 8% increase from the year before. And expectations are high for this year’s Breeders’ Cup, which will consist of 25 1/2 hours of coverage, up for from just 8 1/2 in 2012.
NBC has certainly done its part to get the word out about its racing broadcasts, cross promoting them among its many other sports telecasts. Miller noted that during the Giants-Eagles Sunday night football game last year, which was played five days prior to the Breeders’ Cup, the announcers made several references to the upcoming racing.
“Sunday Night Football is the number one show in all of television, not just sports, but all of television,” Miller said. “Last year, during that Eagles-Giants game, which was one of highest-rated Sunday night football games of the year, we ran an in-program ‘green sheet’ where Al Michaels talked at length about the Breeders’ Cup and that was immediately followed by a 3
0-second spot promoting the Breeders’ Cup and telling people to tune in the following Friday and Saturday. Together all of that is worth over $1 million street value, but when you consider the actual delivery because of how high that game rated and because of the position in game the Breeders’ Cup was discussed, and because we imbedded it within the broadcast, its worth was a multiple of $1 million. Something like that is hugely valuable.”
One of the challenges to producing racing is that the actual race takes up only a few minutes, while a football broadcast, with the exception of commercial breaks, consists almost exclusively of live action. Miller believes NBC has managed to turn the down time into an asset. It has incorporated celebrities into its broadcasts and also relies on human interest features.
“We do the Olympics every two years and the Olympics is an unbelievably spectacular event,” he said. “It’s not a sporting event, it’s just an event. But it lends itself to great storytelling. In order to do a good job with the Olympics, you have to tell stories because you don’t know who a lot of these athletes are. There was a time when no one knew who Michael Phelps or Lindsey Vonn were. The story telling is what made them so popular. We take those principles, which are in our DNA, and we apply them to horse racing. If you have 12 horses in a race you might have 36 great stories.”
NBC is also looking to improve its broadcasts through technology. Jockey cams will be tested during the running of the GI Pacific Classic S. next Saturday and if there are no bugs they will be incorporated into the Breeders’ Cup broadcast. Miller said drones could also be used to provide unique angles of the races and that the NBC team is exploring the idea of implementing augmented and virtual reality into the broadcasts.