By Ray Paulick
-- How big was Funny Cide's run for this year's Triple Crown? In terms of television ratings, no prime-time program received a higher number during the week of the Belmont Stakes than the final hour of NBC's 90-minute race telecast.
Officials estimated 24 million people tuned in, and that doesn't count the large number of racing fans who watched the Belmont from other racetracks or off-track betting parlors around the country.
With a rating of 10.7 for the final hour and 9.5 for the entire show, it was the highest-rated Belmont telecast since 1981, when Pleasant Colony made an unsuccessful bid for the Triple Crown (back then, most Americans had only a handful of viewing options, compared with the current menu of 100-plus cable channels). The 2003 Belmont's market share (the percentage of in-use televisions actually tuned in) was 23% overall and 25% for the final hour.
Television ratings for other sports are not doing as well. Golf's U.S. Open finished with a 4.7 overnight rating and 10 share for its final round coverage on June 15, when Jim Furyk won going away. The rating is way down from the 8.9/22 share in 2002, when Tiger Woods was victorious.
Game six of the NBA Finals, the decisive game for the San Antonio Spurs in their best of seven series against the New Jersey Nets, received a 5.7 rating and 11 share. According to USA Today, it was the lowest-rated NBA Finals in 32 years and down almost 40% from the 2002 finals when the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the same Nets.
Hockey's Stanley Cup Finals, in which the New Jersey Devils beat the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in seven games, had a 2.9 rating and 5 share, the lowest since 1980, according to USA Today.
The 11.9 rating and 20 share for last year's World Series was an all-time low for Major League Baseball. The California Angels beat the San Francisco Giants in seven games that had ratings roughly one-third of what they were 20 years earlier.
Only the NFL's Super Bowl has managed to maintain its popularity over the last 20 years. This year's 40.7 rating/61 share for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' blowout of the Oakland Raiders is within hailing distance of the all-time high ratings of 49.1/73 share recorded in 1982.
The boom in ratings for the Belmont is good news, to be sure, as are the announcements from NTRA Productions that horse racing telecasts on ESPN and ESPN2 are attracting bigger audiences than in 2002. But let's not forget NBC's ratings were down slightly for the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes telecasts or that the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships had just a 2.2 rating and 5% share on NBC last year.
Ratings for any sporting event reflect the story line just as much as the popularity of the sport. A Spurs-Nets series was not as good a story as the Lakers going for another NBA title, just as Jim Furyk trying to win his first golf major was not as compelling a story as Tiger Woods going for a third U.S. Open championship. Funny Cide became a household name this spring, and his popularity drove up the Belmont's television ratings just as quickly as a lackluster story line could bring them back down in 2004.
Thoroughbred racing has momentum as the second, more difficult half of the racing year gets under way. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association has built a solid marketing and lobbying foundation over the last five years, giving the sport higher visibility where it needed it most: among the mainstream and business press, which feasted on this year's Triple Crown, and in Washington, D.C., where federal lawmakers are beginning to understand the size, significance, and history of this highly regulated industry.