TV Ratings and Horse Racing: The Big-Event Phenonmenon

LOUISVILLE, KY - MAY 01: Jockey Martin Garcia atop Conveyance leads the field around turn one during the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby on May 1, 2010 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Over the past decade much has been written about the decline of horse racing in the landscape of American sports.  Certainly, when compared to the glory days of the 30s and 40s, horse racing's impact has lessened significantly, but how far has the sport really fallen?  More specifically, how do the big money horse racing events compare to other sports throughout the United States?

The table below summarizes the ratings for some of the top sporting events in the U.S. over the course of the last five years.  I pulled these numbers from searches on such websites as Nielson, TVByTheNumbers, and Sports Media Watch.  The majority of the numbers represent the average rating for the each telecast with some expressing the high game/final rounds only.   (Some ratings I couldn't find so I left them blank.)

The purpose of the exercise isn't for comparisons of popularity or importance - there's certainly more than just ratings that factor into that - but instead as a snap-shot of recent U.S. sports TV viewing. 

Event

2010

2009

2008

2007

2006

Avg.

Super Bowl

45.0

42.0

43.1

42.6

39.9

42.5

BCS National Championship

17.2

15.8

14.4

17.4

21.7

17.3

NCAA MensBB Final

14.2

10.8

12.1

12.2

11.2

12.1

World Series (Average)

8.4

11.7

8.4

10.6

10.1

9.8

Daytona 500

7.6

9.2

10.2

10.1

11.3

9.7

Kentucky Derby

10.3

9.8

8.8

8.8

8.4

9.2

Masters (Final round)

10.7

8.3

8.6

9.1

8.4

9.0

NBA Finals (Average)

10.6

8.4

9.3

6.2

8.5

8.6

World Cup (High U.S. game)

8.5

8.5

World Cup (Final)

8.2

8.0

8.1

Preakness

6.4

7.9

6.2

6.4

5.7

6.5

Indy 500

4.6

5.6

7.0

5.6

7.6

6.1

U.S. Open (Golf | Final round)

5.8

4.7

7.5

6.4

4.7

5.8

PGA Champ. (Final round)

4.3

6.6

2.8

6.2

6.7

5.3

Belmont Stakes

3.1

4.3

9.0

3.2

3.5

4.6

British Open (Final round)

2.1

3.9

3.5

4.1

5.0

3.7

Stanley Cup (Highest game)

4.7

4.3

4.0

1.9

3.3

3.6

Stanley Cup (Lowest game)

2.0

1.7

1.2

0.4

0.5

1.2

Little League WS (Final)

2.0

2.4

2.1

3.3

n/a

2.5

U.S. Open (Tennis | Men's Final)

1.8

2.3

1.7

3.7

2.4

Wimbledon Men's Final

1.9

3.5

1.9

1.7

1.6

2.1

Wimbledon Women's Final

1.8

2.7

1.9

1.7

1.6

1.9

WSOP

1.1

1.8

1.9

1.6

Breeders' Cup (Saturday)

1.7

1.0

1.0

0.8

0.7

1.0

MLS Cup

0.5

0.9

0.7

0.8

0.8

0.7

Australian Open

0.6

0.8

0.7

WNBA Finals (Average)

0.35

0.47

0.26

0.46

0.4

To no one's surprise, the Super Bowl is the undisputed leader and champion of TV sports viewing in America...and it has no equal.  Not college football, March Madness, the World Series...nothing is even in the same ball park.  (Additionally, almost every single NFL play-off game over the last three years rates better than all of the other events on the list.)  Once we get past the behemoth that is the NFL and the Super Bowl, we see that the sports viewing landscape is distributed fairly evenly across the spectrum.  The BCS title game and the Final of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament fair particularly well compared to the rest, but after that it's a free-for-all.

Take a look at the sports that have averaged an 8.0 to 9.9 rating over the last five years: the World Series, Daytona 500, the final round of The Masters, the Kentucky Derby (which had a huge year in 2010), NBA Finals, and the World Cup Final (or top U.S. game) - that's a pretty diverse selection of sporting events. 

These ratings crystallize the notion that American TV viewers, for the most part, like to watch "the big event", regardless of whether they follow that same sport on non-event days.  The Olympics are an excellent example of this where, during the two weeks of winter or summer games, TV ratings are through the roof for ice hockey, track and field, swimming, skiing, ice skating, and everything else.  It pretty much doesn't matter what the networks show (or, as is the case most of the time with NBC, what they don't show), they'll still get the ratings.  Once the Olympics are over, however, none of those sports generally see anything like those numbers for their garden-variety days.

Horse racing's Triple Crown falls into that "big event" category; people love to watch the Derby, they watch the Preakness to see if the Derby winner can make it two-in-a-row, and then they only turn into the Belmont if a Triple Crown is on the line. (Belmont pulled a 9.0 when Big Brown went for the Crown but struggles to pull in anything near that in non-TC years.)   Of course, horse racing is not alone in this predicament of "big event" viewing: World Cup ratings relate little to MLS; Daytona 500 and Indy 500 cast a shadow over week-in and week-out auto racing; and non-major golf and tennis tournaments rate a fraction of that of the majors. 

(If you need any more evidence of "big event" viewing in the U.S., just take a look at the numbers for the Little League World Series.  Baseball played by eleven and twelve year-olds consistently puts up ratings that rival the U.S. Open (tennis) and Wimbledon.  I'm just guessing, but I doubt a run-of-mill Little League game in June between Stop-And-Go Grocery and Bob's Dry Cleaning would rate very high.)

Horse racing's biggest stage (at least in the mind of the casual fans) is clearly the Triple Crown.  The Breeders' Cup presents the best two days of betting of the year, but the Triple Crown attracts significantly more TV viewers due to the pageantry and history of the events.  The numbers above suggest, at the minimum, that no matter how much other parts of the sport of horse racing suffers, people are still interesting in the Crown.

I think about the TV aspect of horse racing frequently because I feel like that is an area that has potential for large growth but one where there are huge barriers to overcome.  Televised racing is not a short-term solution to increasing fans and handle - it's definitely a long-term one.  And it's an element that probably requires investment from the tracks themselves and a willingness to lose money in the short-term.  Take the Derby preps from last spring: Churchill Downs paid NBC to broadcast the Louisiana Derby, Lane's End Stakes, Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial, Arkansas Derby, and Blue Grass Stakes on USA and NBC.  I think that's actually a smart investment on their part; the more you can get people interested in the build-up to the Derby the more successful you'll be at bringing those people in on race day. And what better way to get them interested in horse racing than to actually show horse racing. 

Most tracks don't have the financial ability to do something like Churchill Downs did, or the marquee event to reap the rewards.  However, I think the basic premise is sound: to reach a more mainstream audience the product has to be brought to the mainstream masses. 

Unlike many of the other sports on the list, TV ratings aren't a key metric in measuring the success or health of the horse racing industry; handle is a much more important factor of financial success/stability.  Big Derby ratings have little impact on day-to-day racing throughout the country, and if they do have an impact, it's generally something that is incredibly difficult to quantify and a probably a weak correlation, at best. 

The fractured nature of horse racing, with every track and every state forming essentially their own "league", is another reason why the impact of television is lessened, at least in a direct revenue sort of way.  There is no doubt that TV has the ability to attract new fans but it's more of a long-term growth strategy more than instant financial impact.  For the most part, racing has been absent from television the last five years.  Assuming that horse racing actually wants to improve their place on TV, what are the barriers holding it back?  Is it simply an issue of super horses generating interest from the casual viewer (Zenyatta and the BC Classic) or is there more to it than just that?  Is the manner in which racing is shown a possible barrier to success?

ESPN used to show the entire undercard on Derby, Preakness and Belmont days, something that went the way of the dodo several years ago.  And while the race portion of this year's Breeders' Cup Classic garnered strong ratings (compared to the last few years on ESPN/ESPN2) the other portions of the Breeders' Cup have faced difficulty drawing or maintaining a big audience, even though the racing is generally better than what's found on Derby day.  No doubt the reason for the discontinuing wall-to-wall Derby day coverage was cost and lack of viewers.  The Derby is a two minute event in mid-afternoon and much easier to lure in and hold viewers, and holding viewers is something that is difficult for the sport given its race day structure.

There is a lot of down-time during a ten or eleven race card, down-time that is fairly unexciting to the non-degenerate gambler. Take for example last year's Derby undercard which started with the first race at 10:30am local time and continued until the Derby ran at 6:30pm.  During those eight hours, Churchill Downs ran eleven races that consumed a little over fifteen minutes of actual racing.  For the horseplayer, the down-time isn't a problem since we're usually spending those 25 to 35 minutes in-between races sketching out tickets and bets.  For the non-die hard TV viewer, it's going to be difficult to hold their interest for any length of time when there's only 15 minutes of racing spread out over eight hours.  And that doesn't make for good TV since that time has to be filled with an endless parade of feel-good stories and fluff pieces....which is exactly what the networks do.

For us hard-core fans, following the sport on a day-to-day basis on TV isn't that hard.  And despite things that drive most of us crazy, the coverage on TVG and HRTV is pretty comprehensive.  Name another sport that allows its fans to watch as many events as those two networks do for horse racing.  Throw-in the ability to watch races through video streaming on the internet and a racing fan can literally watch almost any race in North America, Australia, Asia and Europe that he or she wants to on a given day.  So access certainly isn't a problem.

(Additional note: When you really think about it, the hard-core horse racing fan has it pretty good in terms of access to televised or streamed live racing.  In many ways, racing is in a good position in term of television.)

For racing to penetrate a more mainstream television audience the sport needs to significantly adjust the way it's presented for everything but the big events.  Removal of the "dead time" between races, either through multi-track post-time staggering or some other mechanism, is probably something that needs to be looked into.  First, it would likely help control costs as instead of running a three or four hours program; everything could be done in half the time (assuming multi-track staggering).  Second, it would help to hold the audience. 

Alternatively, perhaps horse racing doesn't need to be shown live for presentation to the non-mainstream fan.  ESPN seems to do okay by tape delaying the WSOP for weeks on end.  In fact, if you look at how poker is presented on ESPN - heavy editing, quick action with timely and informative graphics - there appears to be a lot of different things the sport could try in the future to make televised racing more appealing.  The diehards would still get their live racing through the usual means while the casual observer would get a streamlined down product.

In the end what does this all mean?  For me, it's comforting to know that horse racing still has drawing ability on television, even if it's diminished and contained to the Triple Crown and (sometimes) the Breeders' Cup.  I don't think that's a bad thing - if the sport was truly without hope we wouldn't see non-Triple Crown Belmont ratings that hold up pretty well against other "mainstream" sports.  At the same time, there is no doubt that TV is an important tool for attracting new fans and the sport's ability to penetrate that market is a critical part of long-term growth.

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