Fresh Air
by Ray Paulick
Date Posted: 5/21/2005 1:32:01 PM

Ray Paulick
Editor-in-Chief

A lot of grayhairs frowned initially when the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and Breeders' Cup signed an eight-year deal with ESPN, moving racing's championship day to a cable network beginning in 2006. NBC Sports has broadcast the event every year since its inception in 1984.

Among those expressing concern over the Breeders' Cup switch from network to cable was Tom Meeker, the president and chief executive officer of Churchill Downs Inc. While the NTRA/Breeders' Cup was negotiating with ESPN, Meeker was renewing a five-year agreement to keep the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) on NBC. Magna Entertainment, owner of Pimlico, also retained NBC as the broadcast partner for the Preakness (gr. I), the Triple Crown's middle jewel. The New York Racing Association agreed last year to move the 2006 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) to ABC Sports.

"The fact that we are migrating as an industry away from an over the air broadcast network partner is hurtful to the industry," Meeker said during a conference call to announce the NBC deal for the Derby and Preakness. "The reach available to us on NBC and other major networks is substantially better than a cable platform...you have to be careful about taking what is essentially a fragile industry right now and moving it to a cable-based platform."

That might have been true when ESPN was launched in 1979 and filled many of its programming hours with unrecognizable sports like Australian Rules Football, truck races, and American Professional Slo-Pitch Softball. Cable television was new to most Americans, the majority of whom still relied on antennas for their broadcast signals.

Today, ESPN is in 90 million of America's 108 million television homes, and its programming hours feature every major sport and include playoffs and league championships. The best example of the transformation of franchise events from network to cable was the recent announcement that "Monday Night Football," a 35-year prime-time fixture on ABC, would move to ESPN in 2006. ABC and ESPN are both owned by Disney.

ESPN has been televising NFL football on Sunday nights, viewed by an average of 7.2 million households each week. NBC, which hasn't broadcast the NFL for eight years, will pick up the Sunday night games formerly shown on "cable."

"The difference between cable and broadcast grows more meaningless every week," said Dave Nagle, manager of media relations for ESPN. "Anyone under 35 years old doesn't even know the difference."

Keeping the Derby and Preakness on NBC may be best for those events. The Breeders' Cup telecast, whose viewership has steadily declined, hit an all-time low rating of 1.4 last year, or approximately 1.5 million households. (By comparison, more than 1.7 million households were tuned in to ESPN last year to watch the preview to the Belmont Stakes prior to NBC's telecast of the race.)

The Breeders' Cup hasn't caught on with the general public, but ESPN has the ability to change that.

ESPN is the network responsible for the current poker craze. It invented the X Games and the Outdoor Games, two events popular with youth. It turned the NFL draft into two days of must-see TV for football junkies. ESPN's SportsCenter is background noise for a whole generation of sports fans. Coming soon is the ESPN phone that will allow consumers to watch live programming on a cell phone.

If ESPN marshals all of its marketing and technological forces, as executive vice president of programming Mark Shapiro says it will, the Breeders' Cup will grow--not just in viewers, but in significance.
This could be a very good deal for the Thoroughbred industry.


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