04/28/2005 11:00PM

Breeders' Cup telecast moving to ESPN

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The Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships will be televised on ESPN beginning in 2006, and the network has pledged substantial promotional efforts and seven hours of live broadcast time to Breeders' Cup Day, officials for both companies said Friday.

The agreement, signed Friday morning, will run for eight years and make ESPN and Breeders' Cup partners in the broadcast through a revenue-sharing deal, according to Mark Shapiro, the vice president of programming and production for ESPN. The network already broadcasts 130 hours of horse racing a year, most of it under time purchased by Breeders' Cup and its partner, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

Shapiro and officials for Breeders' Cup declined to provide more specific details, but Shapiro said he expected the agreement to be profitable to both sides. He said ESPN will promote the Breeders' Cup on every property held by ESPN, including "Monday Night Football," which signed an eight-year broadcast deal with ESPN last week.

"With 130 hours of Breeders' Cup programming a year, we are talking about putting together a highly attractive package to advertisers," Shapiro said.

The agreement will end the Breeders' Cup's longstanding partnership with NBC Sports, which has broadcast the event since its first running in 1984. The NBC contract with Breeders' Cup - which was also a revenue-sharing agreement - expires after 2005, when the Breeders' Cup will be held at Belmont Park in New York.

D.G. Van Clief, the president of the Breeders' Cup and chief executive of the NTRA, said that NBC was offered a deal to extend its contract but that NBC declined.

ESPN, the all-sports cable and satellite network, is owned by Walt Disney, which also owns ABC. Last year, ABC reached a multi-year agreement with the New York Racing Association to televise the Belmont Stakes beginning in 2006. The Belmont is the last leg of the Triple Crown.

With college football, ESPN's popular baseball coverage, and "Monday Night Football," the network is an attractive outlet for racing.

"When you look at ESPN, you see a vast number of platforms that can work together to promote ESPN racing," said Van Clief. "There are lots of other elements being brought to the table that makes this more valuable in dollars" than the NBC contract.

Shapiro said he believed that the Breeders' Cup broadcast suffered on NBC from a lack of promotion. Last year, the Nielsen rating for the five-hour broadcast on NBC was a 1.4, a 22 percent decline from a 1.8 rating in 2003 and a low for the broadcast. Each rating point equals about 1.05 million households.

"Somewhere in their cluttered universe, NBC lost sight of it as an event," Shapiro said. "The Breeders' Cup is simply not a property to us. We are fans of horse racing. We are the leaders in horse racing broadcasting."

"We wish the NTRA the best of luck with the Breeders' Cup," said NBC spokeswoman Alana Russo, who declined further comment.

NBC broadcasts the three races of the Triple Crown under a $51.5 million, five-year contract that expires after this year. In contrast to the Triple Crown, which draws hundreds of thousands of non-racing fans, the Breeders' Cup has never been able to command large rights fees.

The seven-hour ESPN broadcast will be two hours longer than any other Breeders' Cup broadcast. Breeders' Cup officials do not expect to make any changes in the scheduling of the eight Breeders' Cup races, which narrowly fit into the five-hour broadcast window, but instead will add lead-in time before the first race and more analysis after the last race, the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic.