Not that long ago, horse racing essentially went dormant for a large part of America in the months between the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, with no sustained national television presence throughout the summer and into the early fall.
In 2011, the bottom had been reached and representatives of McKinsey & Co. issued a stark warning in an industry presentation that the sport was woefully inaccessible on widespread television and that fan development would be an inevitable casualty.
Just seven years later, the television landscape has shifted dramatically and brought U.S. racing from a low point in national TV hours all the way to perhaps a new peak, with nearly 200 hours to be broadcast in 2018. When the McKinsey & Co. warning came in 2011, the total was 43 hours.
This relatively sudden surge, accelerated by the entries of NBC Sports Network and Fox Sports 2 to the lineup of national all-sports channels, led to two examples of an abundance of coverage that would have been virtually inconceivable less than a decade ago.
Just a few weeks after NBC captured Justify’s Triple Crown coronation in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, NBC Sports devoted a 4 1/2-hour Saturday block on the main network to live racing ... from Royal Ascot in England.
One of the few Americans to appear on the broadcast was Dylan Dreyer, a meteorologist from NBC’s weekend “Today” show who happens to have a budding interest in horse racing, spurred on by her experience attending American Pharoah’s Triple Crown clincher in the 2015 Belmont.
“It was surreal watching Royal Ascot on NBC,” said Steve Haskin, the veteran BloodHorse writer who is a passionate observer of high-level racing no matter where it takes place in the world. “I never thought I would see that day. Horse racing fans today have it made, when you think about that and compare it to not that long ago when there were a lot of big races you were lucky to be able to see. Plus, when I was a kid, if a race was on TV or you saw it live, you only saw it one time. They didn’t even have replays at the track in New York until like 1968, I believe. It’s just completely different. It’s a great time to be a racing fan in that respect.”
NBC Sports has been at the forefront of the recent expansion, nearly quadrupling its live coverage from 23 hours in 2011 to 83 hours this year between the flagship channel and NBCSN, which carried the first four days of Royal Ascot before turning it over to NBC for the final day. That came after NBC’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve broadcast this spring grew to a record five hours.
“There is tremendous interest in our horse racing coverage and it’s why we have nearly tripled the number of live TV hours in only six years [27 hours in 2011 to 80-plus in 2018]," said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN, in a statement. “Two examples bookend our spring coverage, with the Kentucky Derby and Royal Ascot, where everything from the attire of the patrons to the minute-by-minute timing of the movement at the track are highlights of the event. In addition, we continue throughout the summer with the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series all the way through to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in the fall. As with American Pharoah in 2015, we are excited that Justify’s Triple Crown run this spring will help drive interest for the remainder of this year.”
In many ways, this is the Golden Age for a horse racing fan watching the sport on television, from the amount of widely accessible coverage to the sterling, cutting-edge production quality on NBC's channels and on Fox Sports 2, which has benefited from a major upgrade in technology and outreach undertaken by the New York Racing Association.
When NYRA reached a new contract with NBC Sports in 2015 centering on the coverage rights to the Belmont Stakes, the deal also included the addition of a time slot for NBC to air the Stars and Stripes Festival that took place this past weekend at Belmont Park, featuring the Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational and Grade 1 Belmont Oaks Invitational Stakes.
Those races joined Royal Ascot as the other striking example that contrasts with the dearth of national coverage in the U.S. in recent years past. Not only was NBC on the air for an hour and a half from Belmont Park last Saturday culminating with the Belmont Derby, when the network signed off, Fox Sports 2 was there to pick right up with another hour of coverage that included the Belmont Oaks.
The advent of casino revenue from Aqueduct has certainly made a difference in NYRA’s ability to upgrade its broadcast capabilities, which also pertain to the company’s simulcast feed, the NYRA website, and the NYRA Bets wagering platform, but CEO Chris Kay also saw TV as a worthy priority as he surveyed the landscape upon taking the job in 2013.
Centering on the Saratoga meet as a showcase, NYRA and Fox Sports 2 rolled out a lengthy schedule that will this year will include more than 94 hours of live coverage, including late-afternoon blocks of mostly two or 2 1/2 hours from almost every live card at the Spa this summer
“We have to expand the base of fans that we have,” Kay said. “We felt it was important to be able to educate people all about horse racing that might not know that much about it so they would feel more informed before making a wager and to show them how much fun they could have at a racetrack to encourage them to come to our racetracks.
“Internally, we know by now that the races that we televise have a greater amount of handle than the races on the same days that didn’t have television beforehand. Without saying the exact number, it is a meaningful difference.”
Besides reaching more people, Kay said a televised focus on premier cards like Travers Stakes day at Saratoga and Wood Memorial Stakes day at Aqueduct provides greater context to the racing season, which at NYRA spans the entire year.
“As a fan of the NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA, or NHL, you know there is an opening day and then a champion is crowned roughly 27 or 28 weeks later,” Kay said. “If you pay attention only some of the time, you can pick right up with the World Series or the Super Bowl. In horse racing and at NYRA in specific, we go all year round, so there isn’t that same kind of indicator, so we wanted to create big event days as an indicator to the public that says, ‘By all means, pay attention to the races on these days.’ That has been the strategy.”