Breeders' Cup Inks Eight-Year Deal With ESPN

The Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships will be televised on ESPN beginning in 2006 under an eight-year contract between the two parties, officials announced April 29. Financial details weren't released, but officials called it a "revenue-sharing" package designed to help racing capitalize on multimedia and technology.

The Breeders' Cup has been televised by NBC since its inception in 1984. ESPN and its affiliated networks are 80% owned by ABC, which last year struck a deal with the New York Racing Association to broadcast the grade I Belmont Stakes, third leg of the Visa Triple Crown, in 2006-07.

This year's Triple Crown will be shown on NBC in the last year of a five-year deal. The status of broadcasts of the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness Stakes (gr. I) in 2006 and beyond is subject to negotiations between networks and Churchill Downs Inc., which holds the Derby at Churchill Downs, and Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness.

It appears all of the major races won't be on the same network. Mark Shapiro, ESPN executive vice president of programming and production, said ESPN and ABC have no interest in acquiring the rights to broadcast the Kentucky Derby.

"We're looking for new, creative ways to broadcast racing to a growing fan base," D.G. Van Clief Jr., National Thoroughbred Racing Association commissioner and Breeders' Cup president, said of the ESPN contract. "One of the key points is a close creative partnership. We're going to have true, ongoing dialogue about the product."

"This is an exciting day for us, folks," said Shapiro. "The Breeders' Cup isn't only a property for us. We are fans of horse racing, and we air 130 hours of programming annually. The Breeders' Cup is an evolutionary step for us."

The 2006 Breeders' Cup, to be held at Churchill Downs, will be broadcast during a seven-hour program from noon to 7 p.m. The program will be produced by ESPN. Currently, the NBC program spans five hours. ESPN and ABC Sports will air five two-hour telecasts from June through October featuring major stakes leading to the Breeders' Cup.

The deal also extends from 2008-13 the "Racing to the Kentucky Derby" and "Road to the World Thoroughbred Championships" series that currently feature 30 telecasts and more than 40 hours of racing programming on ESPN and ESPN2 each year. The agreement includes the extension through 2013 of the weekly "Wire2Wire" racing magazine and highlights show on ESPN2.

There are rights for high-definition coverage via ESPN HD, and Spanish language on ESPN Deportes. The ESPN Mobile cell phone service will be launched in the next year. Breeders' Cup officials said the sport also would get "unprecedented promotion" through a variety of ESPN and ABC Sports platforms.

In discussing the end of the NBC contract, Van Clief said: "We would like to recognize the initial commitment to televise the Breeders' Cup made by the late Arthur Watson, and thank our many friends, in particular Dick Ebersol and Ken Schanzer, on the NBC team who have been such good partners over the past 22 years."

Van Clief said if Watson hadn't stepped up, "I don't think we would have gotten our first leg up on the air."

Though the financial aspects of the deal weren't released, Shapiro said ESPN and Breeders' Cup "expect it to be profitable."

Last year's Breeders' Cup at Lone Star Park produced the lowest television ratings in the 21-year history of the event. The national rating was a 1.4 share, down 22% from the 2003 share. Each rating point represented 1.08 million households.

When asked about the ratings, Shapiro said: "I don't believe Breeders' Cup has been a priority to NBC Sports for years. That's one reason it's moving to ESPN. Somewhere in this cluttered environment and competitive universe, it has gotten lost on NBC."

Alana Russo, a spokeswoman for NBC, said the network would have no response to Shapiro's comments. She said the network looks forward to covering this year's Triple Crown races and Breeders' Cup.

"We wish the NTRA the best of luck with the Breeders' Cup," Russo said.

Van Clief said the "promotional elements" of the ESPN deal would add a new dimension to the Breeders' Cup and horse racing coverage in general. He also said the ESPN and NBC deals are similar from a revenue-sharing standpoint.

Chip Campbell, senior vice president of television and sponsorship for the NTRA, said the multiple platforms offered by ESPN would prove attractive to current and potential sponsors.

"It gives us some flexibility," Campbell said. "For everybody but the real traditionalists, that's going to be really attractive."

Campbell also said the eight-year deal is a big plus from a stability standpoint. "It's something lots of sports are trying to get, and we just got it," he said.

The Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships is an eight-race series with total purses of $14 million. This year's event will be held Oct. 29 at Belmont Park in New York. Churchill is host site next year, followed by Monmouth Park in New Jersey in 2007.

ESPN, based in Bristol, Conn., launched in September 1979 and is available in 89 million households. It offers more than 5,100 live and/or original hours of sports programming each year including games in Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, National Football League, and Women's National Basketball Association. It also broadcasts men's and women's college basketball, tennis, PGA and LPGA golf, the Little League World Series, the X Games, and the Great Outdoor Games.

ESPN is comprised of seven domestic television networks (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPNEWS, ESPN Deportes, ESPNU, and ESPN Today), ESPN and ESPN2 HD, simulcast services, ESPN Regional Television, ESPN International, ESPN Radio,, ESPN The Magazine, SportsTicker, ESPN Enterprises, ESPN Zones, and other new businesses including ESPN360 (Broadband), ESPN Mobile, ESPN on Demand, ESPN Interactive, and ESPN PPV.