NBC, which enjoyed solid ratings in its inaugural year of covering racing's Triple Crown in 2001, partially due to cross-promoting the races with its NBA playoff games, will no longer be televising NBA games when its current contract runs out in the spring of 2002.
The 8.3 rating garnered by the 2001 Kentucky Derby, for example, was a major improvement over ABC's 6.6 rating for the Derby in 2000. In 2001 the race didn't have to compete with the basketball playoffs, instead serving as a lead-in for the NBA. That was cited by television executives as a major reason for the higher viewership numbers for the Derby. That all is about to change starting in 2003, however.
The NBA contract has been awarded to a combination of Disney-owned ABC and ESPN, as well as to Turner Broadcasting, and a new channel, AOL Sports, currently CNN/SI, which will be co-owned by Turner, AOL, and the NBA.
Besides serving as lead-ins for the NBA games, the Triple Crown races benefitted from being promoted during NBC's telecasts of playoff basketball games. Other than the Winter Olympics, which NBC will air in February, 2002, the Peacock Network has a scarcity of major sporting events on its schedule once its NBA contract expires. It televises a series of golf events, but the major ones, such as the U.S. Open and the Ryder Cup, take place following the end of the Triple Crown. NBC's NASCAR season does not begin until July. This spring, as an example, coverage of the Belmont Stakes will follow French Open tennis in the morning and the Senior PGA Championship in early afternoon on NBC.
While viewership for these events likely will rank below what NBA playoff games earn, it should be noted that the Triple Crown events will still benefit from being promoted on NBC's primetime lineup, which ranks at the top in key demographic areas.
Also, it is worth noting that ABC will be televising roughly half the NBA games in 2002-2003 that NBC currently is. In addition, ABC will only telecast some Sunday NBA playoff games until the Finals, which it will televise in total. This means that the Triple Crown races, which take place on Saturdays, while once again competing against the NBA for viewers, will be battling against cable networks like ESPN, which don't have as much penetration into the national market as do the 'Big Four' networks.
The role of the ESPN family of networks as far as Triple Crown coverage is concerned has yet to be determined. A possible conflict could arise over ESPN and ESPN2's same-day programming on Kentucky Derby Day. "Today at the Kentucky Derby," for instance, usually runs from 12:30-2:00 p.m. Eastern time. If ESPN is broadcasting an NBA playoff game, however, such preliminary Derby shows would have to find a new home.
National Thoroughbred Racing Association senior vice president of media and sponsorship Chip Campbell said that live race programming has been contracted with ESPN through 2003, and the NTRA and the network are in the process of working on an extension through 2005. "I think it's possible we could work around the NBA schedule," Campbell noted.
"It cuts both ways," he added. "We have talked to NBC and there's going to be time slots that open up there. We're going to explore that with them. We'd be fools not to. I don't think this is a disaster by any means."
NBC refused to comment as to whether it would be picking up any pre-Triple Crown coverage. The network holds the rights to the Triple Crown through 2005.