03/17/2011 12:22PM

Triple Crown deal a win-win for NBC, series


Agreements between racetracks rarely have across-the-board benefits for the racing industry these days, but just about everyone agrees there is no downside to recent deals that have restored all three Triple Crown races to one broadcast network.

The agreements between NBC and the three Triple Crown hosts -- Churchill Downs, Pimlico Race Course, and Belmont Park -- came in mid-February, and so the full financial benefits, such as an overall Triple Crown sponsor, probably won't be realized this year, with the first race of the Triple Crown just six weeks away.

However, the restoration of the races on one network holds several other immediate benefits to the racing industry and its fans, such as increased television coverage and a built-in incentive for NBC to aggressively promote the full series, since the benefits of its promotion won't accrue to a competing network.

"It's just such a huge promotional advantage," said Ed Seigenfeld, the former executive vice president of Triple Crown Productions, a partnership between the three tracks that was dissolved after the races were split between two networks in 2006. "You can keep banging away at it for six weeks and never lose any momentum. It gives you the ability to go out and get one big sponsor. And you can sell it across multiple events and multiple venues. And it's impossible to go to sponsors with a straight face to say that they can get the same bang for their buck if it's not all on one network."

The three races haven't been on the same network since 2005, when the New York Racing Association, the operator of Belmont Park, struck its own deal with the sports giant ABC-TV, the sister network of ESPN, in a five-year deal running through 2010. At the time, the Belmont Stakes was on a roll, with three straight Triple Crown possibilities from 2002 to 2004 that had sent the race's television rating through the roof, higher even than the same year's Derby rating.

That rating success didn't translate into any additional broadcast revenue to NYRA, which under the previous deal received 25 percent of the rights fee paid by NBC to Triple Crown Productions regardless of the race's popularity. So NYRA decided to shop the race to broadcasters on its own and found a willing partner in ABC; Churchill and Pimlico stuck with NBC.

As fate would have it, ABC wasn't nearly as lucky as NBC. Only one horse had a chance at the Triple Crown from 2006 to 2010, in 2008, and ratings for the other four broadcasts were among the worst ever for the race. The Belmont rating hit an all-time low in 2010, at 2.7. Not surprisingly, after Churchill re-upped with NBC earlier this year, ABC/ESPN announced it was no longer interested in the Belmont, leaving NBC to pick up the missing piece.

NBC, which was purchased earlier this year by the cable giant Comcast, has committed to 25 hours of total Triple Crown-related programming this year -- double the amount of air time last year -- with broadcast time on its flagship network and Versus, a cable channel it is attempting to promote. Versus will provide live broadcasts of the Kentucky Oaks and Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, as well as undercard coverage of all three Triple Crown races. NBC will shoulder the three big races.

According to NBC officials, the Kentucky Derby has been designated a "cross-channel priority," meaning the network plans to promote the race across its broadcast properties. The "Today" show and its weekend edition will broadcast live from Churchill Downs, as will CNBC and the Weather Channel, the officials said. In addition, two new entertainment channels in the NBC universe, E! and Style, will do segments on the Derby, a strategy that has been endorsed by Churchill officials to expand the event's draw beyond sports fans and into the realm of fashion and culture.

NBC officials have said they will broadcast every race live while they are on the air, whether the broadcasts are on NBC or Versus. That might sound obvious, but broadcasters in the past have often neglected to show minor races that are part of their rights packages, frustrating racing fans who are playing the full cards from home.

Officials of the Triple Crown tracks expressed relief that the three races are back on one network. Although none has said the restoration will suddenly thrust the series into the top echelon of sporting events, they have cited NBC's ability to promote the entire series and its earlier work with the Derby broadcasts as reasons to believe the sport's best interests are intertwined with the network's.

"NBC has already started running a 2011 Triple Crown promotional ad on its sports programming, and that is good for all of horse racing," said Bob Evans, the chief executive of Churchill.

"Knowing that NBC loves the event and that they are dedicated to making it better, that's a comforting feeling for everyone," said Churchill spokesman John Asher.
The only drawback to the restoration is that it is unlikely that NBC will be able to attract an overall sponsor for the Triple Crown this year because negotiations concluded so late. The Triple Crown hasn't had an overall sponsor since 2005, the last time the races were all on one network, but NBC officials and Triple Crown officials said they were optimistic a deal could be reached for the 2012 series.

"The synergies that can be created, while not guaranteed, will allow us over the next couple of years to come up with some ideas that can hopefully benefit the network and the Triple Crown tracks," said Tom Chuckas, the president of Pimlico Race Course. "We'll get there down the road."

Some other issues also remain unresolved. For one, there's the possibility of a prime-time Derby now that Churchill has lights, but Churchill officials remain lukewarm to the idea, citing the event's history: It has always been held during the daytime, and late-afternoon Derby parties have become a staple of the first Saturday in May.

In addition, the relationship between the three Triple Crown tracks is not exactly rosy. Management at the three tracks remain wary of each other, in part because of the strain created by NYRA's decision to break off from the pack. That could cause friction in promotional strategies, though one official involved in the Triple Crown, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, downplayed the potential effects.

"They might not like each other, but it's NBC's job to promote the series nationally, not the tracks'," the official said. "That's another reason to be happy it's all on one network."