06/05/2013 1:24PM

Triple Crown ratings on NBC remain high


For all the perennial hand-wringing over the state of the U.S. racing industry, one area of the sport has been surprisingly resilient even as U.S. handle totals have cratered over the last five years and national media outlets have heaped scorn on the sport: television ratings for the Triple Crown races.

This year, the rating for the Derby was a 9.7, the highest since a 9.8 rating in 2010 and well above the ratings for the race throughout most of the 1990s. The rating for the Preakness was a 5.9, up 13 percent compared with last year and the highest for the race since 2009, when the industry began to be beset by enormous declines in handle coincident with the U.S. recession.

While the rating for the Belmont Stakes on Saturday will not come close to setting a record without a Triple Crown on the line, the rating for the telecast for the last two years has been sharply higher than the telecasts from 2006 to 2010 (not including the rating in 2008 when a Triple Crown was possible). In 2011, NBC took over the broadcast rights from ABC/ESPN, returning all three races of the Triple Crown to one network.

[BELMONT STAKES: Live updates and video from Belmont Park]

“A lot of that has to do with the way we present the sport and cross-promote it,” said Adam Freifeld, vice president of communications for NBC Sports, citing segments about horse racing on the “Today” show, “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon”, and CNBC, all programs broadcast on NBC’s family of networks. “It is a promotional priority for us, and all part of our big-event strategy.”

While nowhere near the rating the Super Bowl generated, the Derby this year had a higher rating than every college football game of the 2012-13 season with the exception of the national championship game and the SEC championship game. No NBA game, including Monday’s Game 7 matchup of the Eastern Conference Finals, has had a rating that has approached it. The Derby also had a rating higher than any college basketball game of the 2012-13 season other than the national championship and a Final Four matchup between Syracuse and Michigan. It outdraws the final round of the Masters, and its viewership fell just short of the year’s highest-rated auto race, the Daytona 500, according to NBC.

Furthermore, the Derby is unique in that it is the only major annual sporting event, according to NBC, that draws more female viewers than male viewers. This year, 52 percent of the Derby viewership was female. (The Summer Olympics and Winter Olympics, each run every four years, also post higher numbers of female viewership.)

“It’s because of the horse,” said Alex Waldrop, chief executive of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. “It’s the attraction to our athletes, which in this case is the horse. It is unique and it is special. That’s what really broadens the demographic.”

Away from the Triple Crown, however, racing appears to reside in a television netherworld. The 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic, arguably the greatest race on the U.S. calendar, drew a 2.0 rating, for example, lower than the rating for a midseason NFL pregame show that week. A broadcast of a Derby prep race such as the Blue Grass or Santa Anita Derby might draw 300,000 to 500,000 viewers, compared with the 16.6 million that watched the Derby this year.

“You put the Santa Anita Derby out there on a gorgeous Saturday and you only get 350,000 viewers,” said Freifeld, who called the Derby his personal favorite sporting event of the year. “But the Derby is something special. It’s Americana. It’s the first Saturday in May. It transcends the sports landscape.”