01/27/2012 3:15PM

Crist: Breeders' Cup's return to NBC can only help


There are two ways to look at the announcement last week that network television coverage of the Breeders’ Cup is returning to NBC after six years at ESPN.

Pessimists will say that the joint agreement to terminate the ESPN deal two years before its expiration, and the relegation of all but one hour of coverage to the NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus) rather than NBC itself, is a dark sign for the sport. As one commenter on a DRF blog put it last week, “When ESPN dumps your product, it means that you’re toast in the sports world.”

A happier spin is that the ESPN years were a failed experiment, a bad situation that was getting worse by the year, and that things can only get better with the Cup at a network that actually likes and values the product. Personally, I’m inclined to go with that cheerier view, while acknowledging that I also thought the move to ESPN six years ago was going to be a good one.

In theory, it should have been: With its need to supply 24-hour programming for multiple channels, ESPN seemed perfectly positioned to fulfill racing’s television wish list: Year-round attention, a weekly recap show, extensive coverage of the fall preps leading to the Cup, and big-time coverage of the main event. Surely, with rights to the Cup itself, ESPN would mention racing at every opportunity, and the sport would begin showing up regularly on SportsCenter and the network’s various daily talk and call-in shows. ESPN’s legendary penchant for self-promotion, for treating properties it had the rights to as major news events, would propel racing to much wider visibility.

In practice, most of that never happened, and any initial enthusiasm fizzled quickly. In less than five years, the recap and preview shows and the extensive Derby Week coverage were gone, promotion of the Cup was minimal, and the ratings were anemic. The only year the numbers were up, when they more than doubled for Zenyatta’s final career start in the 2010 Classic, it was no thanks to ESPN – the bump came entirely from a preview piece on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

So what happened? According to Cup officials and ESPN insiders, there was no villain in this piece, no ESPN executive who hated racing and ordered it minimized, but there was also no internal advocate for the sport or the event. That apparently makes a big difference at the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” where a lack of internal enthusiasm for golf and hockey have led to drastically reduced visibility for those sports in both big-event carriage and daily news coverage. Most National Hockey League games are now on the rebranded NBC Sports Network, and league officials have been effusive in praise of their new network home.

An ESPN spokesman told Daily Racing Form that “In the last few years, ESPN has reduced its coverage of horse racing and this event no longer fits with our overall content strategy.”

Some things about ESPN’s coverage will be missed, primarily the excellent team of analysts Jerry Bailey and Randy Moss, but others won’t – the pretentious camera work where the flow of races was destroyed by multiple camera angles, “artistic” shots from under the rail, and insipid graphics like the “miles per hour” meter that never even worked properly.

It’s disappointing that only one hour of the Cup will be shown on NBC itself, with all of Friday’s most of Saturday’s races on NBC Sports Network, but the promotional power of the flagship network is a major asset. NBC is jazzed about racing these days, and got its expanded coverage off to a good start with the “Summer at Saratoga” last year. It also can’t hurt that the same parent now has the rights to both the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup. Between those events, the Saratoga and Keeneland telecasts and increased Derby prep coverage through a Jockey Club initiative, NBC’s total racing airtime will increase from 5 1/2 hours in 2010 to more than 55 hours in 2012.

One tangential benefit of the return to NBC may be a redirection of the bulk of Breeders’ Cup charitable donations to a more appropriate recipient than the ESPN-founded Jimmy V. Foundation, which became the primary beneficiary of these donations when the ESPN deal commenced. By all accounts it is an excellent charitable organization, dedicating 100 percent of donations to human-cancer research, but the money raised for it at various Cup events was a tiny drop in a massive corporate bucket and will not be missed.

The racing world, however, has any number of worthy charities much closer to home and in urgent need of funding, from disabled jockeys to homeless retired racehorses, for whom these donations would be significant and meaningful.