Updated on 09/17/2011 9:17PM

Cup on ESPN has its benefits


NEW YORK - The announcement Friday that the Breeders' Cup will move from NBC to ESPN for at least eight years beginning in 2006 may seem like a comedown for the sport and its premier year-end event. The World Series, Super Bowl, and NBA finals are all on one of the over-the-air broadcast networks. Is the Breeders' Cup no longer in that league?

A decade ago, that might have been a fair perception, but in the television world of the 21st century, that's no longer necessarily the case.

This is not to say that the Breeders' Cup has been a rousing success on network television. Ratings have been in a long and steady decline, and advertising has been a tough sell beyond those sponsors recruited and supplied by the racing industry itself. Commercial time has often been available at fire-sale rates the week of the event.

While the Cup has been a virtually unqualified success within racing, providing the second half of the season with a focal point and creating the best day of racing on the planet each year, it is difficult to argue that it has recruited civilians to participate in the sport.

Yet that goal may have always been mere wishful thinking. Racing in general, like many other sports and businesses, has begun targeting likely repeat customers instead of paying for network exposure and hoping that good things will follow. There's a reason that most racing-related advertising appears on sports and racing broadcasts rather than on "Law & Order" or "Desperate Housewives." It's not only cheaper, it's more effective.

The idea that a major sports event must appear on a broadcast network has become less true with each passing year, as network commands a steadily decreasing share of eyeballs while basic-cable penetration increases. Most of this past opening week of the NBA playoffs has been carried by ESPN and TNT rather than ABC. Perhaps the watershed in this trend was the recent announcement that "Monday Night Football," which pioneered sports broadcasting in prime-time network airtime 35 years ago, will move from ABC to ESPN next year.

ESPN will pay $1.1 billion a year for "Monday Night Football," which is $1.1 billion more than it is paying in rights fees for the Breeders' Cup. Like the previous NBC arrangement, this is a revenue-sharing deal based on advertising sales. So there's no financial loss to racing from the switch to cable, and a pretty encouraging list of potential advantages:

* The telecast will expand from 4 1/2 to seven hours beginning next year, and Mark Shapiro, ESPN executive vice president, said Friday he would like to see it eventually grow to as much as 10 hours and perhaps appear in prime time. A longer telecast allows for greater scheduling and wagering flexibility, and there's now also room for possibly adding more Cup races, such as a filly sprint or a dirt mile, in the future.

* While NBC did minimal promotion for the event, ESPN is likely to treat it as a more valued piece of programming.

"I don't think the Breeders' Cup has been a priority for NBC Sports for years," Shapiro said. "That's one reason it's moving over to ESPN. In this cluttered environment and competitive universe, it's gotten kind of lost at NBC."

* ESPN, which broadcasts hours of poker tournaments and recently produced a telecast of the Daily Racing Form/NTRA Handicapping Championship, is far more wagering-friendly than NBC, which has fought tying the telecast to a wagering platform. ESPN is likelier to cooperate and to promote such efforts, especially in the key potential growth area of international betting.

"We've made no secret of our aspirations in the global marketplace," D.G. Van Clief, the NTRA commissioner and Breeders' Cup chairman, said Friday. "That's a big part of the future."

* The content and quality of the telecast is likely to improve sharply. The network broadcasts have been so useless to actual bettors that Breeders' Cup has had to produce a separate simulcast show just to provide basic odds and payoff information. NBC's telecasts have become formulaic and bland presentations of Olympics-style human-interest stories. ESPN already produces 130 hours a year of racing telecasts, which will continue and probably grow under the eight-year deal, and has developed the game's premier on-air talent, led by Randy Moss.

"We wanted a close creative partnership, a dialogue about the product itself," Van Clief said. "We're looking for new, creative ways to present horse racing."

Those are a lot of silver linings to the small cloud of losing the waning prestige of being carried by a broadcast network. A longer, better, and more aggressively promoted Breeders' Cup will be of more lasting value than the brief frisson of seeing a 10-second promo on "Joey" during Breeders' Cup week.