[UPDATED with additional information about this spring's racing coverage on the NBC family of networks.]
The long-anticipated change of Versus to the new NBC Sports Network occurred today at 4pm Eastern time, just in time for the NHL's annual Winter Classic. The re-branded network, along with NBC, will broadcast several of this year's Kentucky Derby prep races, all three legs of the Triple Crown, and selected telecasts from Saratoga and Keeneland. Additionally, the NBC Sports Network will cover Olympic events, NHL, MLS, the Tour de France, college football and basketball, as well as a variety of sports-centric talk shows to fill out the all-day channel.
While ESPN is the self-titled "World Wide Leader", the congestion of programing on their family of network tends to relegate the niche sports to the proverbial back-of-the-line in terms of resources and promotion. The NHL moved to Versus from ESPN and found a good home. MLS will do the same this year after many years of appearing on ESPN.
Given the highly competitive nature of televising live sporting events (and the lucrative dollars that come along), it's important for those sports that are seeking to grow their audience to find platforms that are committed to their specific product. Horse racing, a sport seemingly always in need of growing its audience, is a perfect fit for the new NBC Sports Network.
The addition of telecasts from Saratoga and Keeneland last fall on the old Versus channel were a welcome addition to horse racing fans. You never got the feeling that those programs, in glorious HD from two of the most beautiful and historic horse racing venues in America, were something that the network was just wedging into their schedule. It was really the tip-of-the-iceberg of what televised horse racing "could be" given a proper commitment.
For all of ESPN's qualities, their level of commitment to horse racing has seriously regressed over the last decade. Gone are the days of "Breakfast at Churchill Downs", a Breeders' Cup handicapping preview show, or even the Randy Moss hosted programs recapping stakes races from the previous week. (All of those programs existed just 10 years ago.) Even the Breeders' Cup has lost a little something after moving from NBC to ESPN, with the event turning into a cobbled together collection of programs on three different channels in order to squeeze it in between various college football games. I don't blame ESPN for doing that since college football generates better ratings and dollars than the Breeders' Cup ever has. But at the same time, horse racing's marquee events, of which the Breeders' Cup is certainly one, deserves more than second (or third)-fiddle status.
While there are no rumors of the Breeders' Cup following the Triple Crown and returning to NBC once the current contract expires, the launch of the NBC Sports Network, along with the need of that network to add live sports programing to their schedule, would seem to create another outlet that might better serve this event and the sport in general.
(UPDATE) Road to the Kentucky Derby
From The Jockey Club (All Times Eastern):
|24-Mar||5-6pm||NBCSN||Spiral Stakes; Bourbonette Oaks|
|31-Mar||5-6pm||NBCSN||Florida Derby; Gulfstream Oaks|
|7-Apr||4:30-6pm||NBC||Wood Memorial; Santa Anita Derby|
|14-Apr||6-7pm||CNBC||Blue Grass Stakes; Arkansas Derby|