By Carter Carnegie
This is the first in a series of monthly columns focused on Sports Business and Marketing and how we can learn from it in horse racing. As I discussed the concept with the TDN, I quickly realized that the best format would be through interviews of individuals I have had the pleasure to work and learn from over my career as their insight would be more meaningful than any of my opinions. Selecting my first guinea pig for this new experiment was easy, as I have had the privilege of learning from this person ever since negotiating my first television agreement for a 3-v-3 show called Hoop-It-Up, where former NBA players competed against the best amateur team in a half court game of basketball. He has been a friend and mentor ever since always making time to listen to my crazy ideas, including agreeing to this interview.
Jon Miller has been with NBC since 1978 and has held many roles throughout the organization, from a sales account executive to VP of Sales, and now the leader of programing of almost 9,500 hours of sports across NBC and NBC Sports Network. His commitment to forging long-lasting partnerships is one of his professional hallmarks, and has been evident in our association over the years. Although we first collaborated when the NBA was on NBC, my path crossed his again years later while I was leading the Breeders' Cup commercial efforts. We worked together on returning the World Championships to its original broadcasting home after a stint at ESPN. From co-creating the Winter Classic to introducing the Premier League to a U.S. audience, Jon has pretty much written the book on sports television programming, working with every major property whether it is the Olympics, NBA, MLB, NHL, NASCAR, NFL, PGA Tour, and Formula One.
His vision and commitment to our sport led to the Triple Crown being reunited under one roof and coupled with Breeders' Cup gave racing a powerful promotional platform to showcase itself on the national stage throughout the year with one of America's most storied broadcasters. Horse Racing is lucky to have him in its corner.
CC: So Jon, to start, I think very few people know that you're also a horse racing fan, so before we get into the business of sports television, what is one of your fondest racing memories?
JM: My fondest racing memory is very simple and it doesn't take a whole lot for me to identify. It was the 2013 Kentucky Derby when Orb won and Golden Soul came from out of nowhere to finish second and enable me to win the superfecta and the trifecta at Churchill Downs.
We started jumping up and down like a bunch of 10-year-old schoolboys. It was a pretty great memory, a fun ride home, and it's one that I remember fondly. That's one of those great things about the sport; you never know when a great moment can happen, at any moment, and that was my great moment.
But I've got a lot of great, fun moments at the track and I've been fortunate enough to be at 25 Kentucky Derbys. I went to my first Kentucky Derby when I was a freshman in college in 1975 and I was there in 1978 for Affirmed. So I've enjoyed it and have built some great friendships and relationships with the folks from Churchill to Preakness to NYRA to Royal Ascot and the Breeders' Cup.
CC: What are some of the cardinal rules and criteria that you follow when deciding to air a sports property?
JM: In the sports television business, we serve multiple masters. So not only are we serving the television viewing audience, we're serving advertisers, we're serving the leagues in the way we present their property, we're serving the content distribution companies. We've got to deliver on all of those things, and then it's got to make sense from a financial perspective as well. You've got to find a way to make the deals make sense, make sure you can produce them well, program them well, promote them well, and fortunately, we can do that with the properties we have.
CC: What are some of the key performance indicators or return on investment thresholds you look for to continue airing an event? I've noticed NBC Sports takes pride in curating brands with a focus on creating long-term relationships and elevating the status of the properties you select by growing their presence on television.
JM: Those relationships are very important to us. We pride ourselves on the partnerships that we have and their longevity. We look for properties that have real stickiness. Exclusivity is important to us, but the most important thing is not just that we have exclusivity every place, but that we find quality properties that have strong CPMs (cost per thousands) that our advertising and sales teams can go out and deliver on.
We don't like to acquire properties where there's a commodity element. So for example, you won't see us doing much college basketball on NBC. College basketball is a wonderful property and I'm a big fan. But to give you a frame of reference, around 1985 there were maybe 100 college basketball games available on television. Now, there are close to 4,400 college basketball games available on television.
CC: Can you explain briefly the difference between rights fees versus time buy and what are the pros and cons of both for a sports property?
JM: Well, the rights fees are obviously what every property aspires to and sitting at the top of the rights fee mountain are things like the NFL, the NBA, the Olympics, Major League Baseball, hockey, et cetera, and those are properties that will command a rights fee because they are so desirable because they deliver audiences. There are advertisers who will support them and make it worth their while to have them on your air.
They also do something really special in that they hold the bundle together, which enough people don't recognize. Something like the NFL, the NBA and other live sports are one of the reasons why people have cable and satellite telco subscriptions. They can get that bundle and the cable operators recognize that but the leagues recognize that as well. That's why those properties will take on a much stronger demand equation when it comes to competitiveness and acquiring those rights.
Now, as far as the time sales goes, there are a lot of properties out there that come in and buy the time, that quite honestly do quite well, but have chosen to control the messaging and the inventory and the sponsorship base themselves, so they do it themselves, and own all the time and sell all the advertising.
And then, there are smaller properties that are out there that get into that time sale business and largely because the networks are not going to pay for those properties nor do the networks want to have their sales force out there selling those properties. They want their sales teams focused on those properties where they have big investments and significant risk.
CC: With the arrival of legalized sports betting and its impact on sports viewing on television, how do you balance story telling while also promoting sports betting? How do you appeal to the sports-betting customer without alienating the non-betting sports fan?
JM: What's so important about the way we cover sports is that we're authentic. You can tell when you're watching a program and somebody's shilling on the betting side, but I don't think you'll ever see that from us, that's just not the way we do television. But we're not going to shy away from point spreads and lines and betting terminology now, as it becomes part of the story.
Horse racing and betting go hand in hand, and that's why we have an Eddie Olczyk, Randy Moss and these different people give their thoughts and opinions before a race and apply that to how they can bet so it makes sense for the viewer.
For the longest time, you couldn't talk about betting on football, but I think that we're seeing that change.
CC: Betting is becoming a major trend in sports. Are there any other trends that you see in the sports television landscape that people may not be thinking about right now?
JM: Everybody talks about e-gaming and e-sports, and it's very interesting. When this pandemic broke, we were able to take advantage of our relationship with iRacing to put some virtual IndyCar racing on NBCSN and FOX did some with NASCAR and it performed well. We also were able to do some feature programming with the ePremier League.
There is a place for e-gaming, but I don't think it ever is going to take the place of live sports events and live viewing, but we think it attracts an audience that likes to watch gaming, likes to participate, and likes to watch expert gamers play.
CC: Shifting the conversation to horse racing, what are some of the inherent challenges of putting the sport on television?
JM: You've got a lot of challenges with horse racing. You've got story telling, but with every 12-horse field, you have 36 stories to tell, and having Rob Hyland, who is the best in the business, selecting those storylines is what makes NBC shine. You have the horse's breeding lines, you have the jockey stories, you have the trainer stories, so finding the best stories to pick is almost like you have so much to choose from you have to be selective about what you showcase.
The other thing is that horse racing can be a fragile sport, and there's been a lot of tough, negative publicity lately with incidents, and that's something you've also need to be mindful of and you can't run away and hide from those issues. And so, you have to delicately tell those stories and give both sides of the story and tell them accurately and fairly. But our job is to cover the event. Our mission is not to influence opinions or direct people to think one way or another, our job is to cover the sport and deliver it as objectively, fairly, and creatively as we can.
CC: As you lead the way on programming for NBC, what was your vision and goal in aggregating all of the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup rights?
JM: We feel that is goes back to the whole exclusivity idea. If you have a sport and you have all the key elements of that sport, you can weave a very interesting and topical thread throughout, and maximize the value for all parties involved.
CC: Racing is a very fragmented enterprise with many different stakeholders each having different valuations of their rights. Are there other sports that are similar in that way?
JM: There is nothing as challenging as dealing with all the different elements in horse racing, and I say that with a smile because I really enjoy all of our partners. We've really tried to be the one focal point of all of these different properties and for a long time the properties never really worked together. They were competitive and were all looking for an advantage and we understand that was how the sport worked but now we feel very comfortable talking with all of them and getting everyone to go in the same direction. It is working out well.
CC: Recently, there has been a collaboration between TVG and NBC Sports. Do you see that to be complementary? Is it just a sign of the times? What are some of the big takeaways from that?
JM: This has really been a great result and a lot of the credit goes to Gary Quinn who runs our Programming and our Owned Properties Group, and who works closely with Kip Levin over at TVG. When the pandemic happened and live sports shut down, it was when we were preparing all of our Derby prep races and we had to figure out, well, what are we going to do. Gary Quinn reached this deal with TVG and we started it for a couple of weekends, just, quite honestly to have some live sports on the air, some live horse racing. We knew the Kentucky Derby was moving. We still didn't have dates for the Belmont and the Preakness set yet, but it turned out to deliver great audiences, several hundred thousand that oftentimes lead the day in terms of its live viewing. A lot of people who were looking for live sports found it. I have a son who is a sports fan but not a racing fan, but he found it early and he became a big fan as did a lot of his friends. When you can get young men in their late 20s, early 30s, all of a sudden to become horse racing fans, who ordinarily might not have found the sport, then you've done some good things there.
CC: Perfect segue into my next question. The dilemma of the horse racing audience: Does it skew older because the game has a dying fan base, which you hear often, or is it a sport that appeals to older people?
JM: I don't know the right answer. Racing has been around a long time. A lot of people have tried to kill it and say it's dead, but it still survives and clearly you see with the ratings for the Derby, Preakness, Belmont, and Breeders' Cup, do incredibly well at those special moments.
It's also one of those sports that skews older, but has a loyal television audience. The ease of mobile betting and learning about it will help broaden its audience and get it to a more diverse demographic. There's a tremendous amount of horse racing available to you every day of the week if you want to watch it. There are tracks running 365 days a year, pretty much, in this country. But in terms of the quality of good racing, it's important to showcase those races and I think that we're finding that.
CC: What are some of the unique traits of horse racing that need to be exploited or leveraged by stakeholders to promote and introduce the sport to a larger audience?
JM: These animals are remarkable athletes. These jockeys are incredible athletes. These trainers are incredibly accomplished. There's a lot that goes into breeding and raising a three-year-old to race at the highest level and telling these stories is important and getting companies to understand that and helping to activate the sponsorships around it certainly helps promote that narrative.
There's no shortage of challenges out there for the sport and I give a lot of credit to the Breeders' Cup Board for trying to keep it front and center once the Belmont ends. It's not a six-week season any longer. It's an eight-month to 10-month season. You have to keep that storyline going and having these horses run and getting to see these horses becomes important. Everybody wants to see the best horses as often as they can while keeping in mind they can't run them too much because they are very fragile and they have to be maintained and well taken care of.
CC: What's the best sports or television marketing advice you have received and who gave it to you?
JM: A piece of advice that really applies to what's going on now is listen and be very empathetic to your partners. Every one of your partners are going through this very difficult time. Their properties, their leagues, their sports or their events, are the most important thing in their world, other than their families and their health. But from a business perspective, this is their lifeblood and they're going through some significant challenges and uncertainty. We deal with 50 or 60 different properties and partners and are in constant dialogue with all of them, and each one of them has a big cloud hanging over them with uncertainty about their path forward.
So my advice to my team and the advice that I've been given by people who I respect and admire is that it's really important that you listen and be empathetic in times like this. We are going to come out of it and are going to be on the other side of it and things are going to get back to whatever the new normal is and people will remember a lot how you treated them when their backs were against the wall and when they were going through difficult times. You want to continue to be someone that they can look to as a rock and as a consistent good partner…
CC: If racing had a commissioner and you were in that role for a day, what would you look at changing to improve the business financial side of the sport?
JM: Those are hard questions because I'm not as in tune with all of the expenses that go into breeding and raising and getting a horse ready. The problem is you've got such a disparity in what people spend, you can't really impose any kind of a salary cap. It's the ultimate free-market system in horse racing and I think it's one of the things that makes it so wonderful and that you could have a deep-pocketed farm and breeders and then you could have another guy who's put together a syndicate of his buddies and that horse, for whatever reason, just kind of comes out of nowhere. It's very tough to control anything with finances.
I would also stress the transparency. We had a really tough experience last year at the Derby. At the end of the race where there was a foul called and we couldn't get clarity and we couldn't get answers (from the stewards of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission), and we had a huge television audience waiting on the ruling. I would want the industry to work closer together to make sure that we don't have a repeat. That wasn't good for anybody. The issue of transparency is important and highlights that every sport has to be able, in real time, to explain what's going on. The more transparent you are, the more accessible you become.