BCS and BC on ESPN

The drama surrounding Zenyatta’s valiant attempt to win a second straight Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2010 nearly tripled the television ratings over 2009.  While this was a highly favorable outcome, the television ratings for the recently completed college football bowls indicate that the Breeders’ Cup could have done better on network television.

For the first time, the college football Bowl Championship Series (BCS) in 2011 was telecast exclusively on cable channel ESPN.  The Breeders’ Cup made the same move in 2006 by opting to telecast the Saturday feature races on ESPN rather than on NBC. 

The result of the BCS migration to cable was dismal.  The ratings for four of the five BCS games nosedived as compared to last year.  Ratings for the Rose Bowl, the Orange Bowl, and the Fiesta Bowl plummeted by 14 percent, 22 percent, and 30 percent, respectively.  The BCS bowl game to determine the national champion drew the largest audience in the history of cable television.  In spite of that, the game’s 15.3 rating was down by 11 percent from 2010 and ranked ninth out of 13 BCS title games.

The Breeders’ Cup experience with leaving network television for cable TV closely parallels what occurred in college football.  The Breeders’ Cup was telecast on network television from 1984 until 2006, when it was switched to a combination of ABC and ESPN.  The centerpiece, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, is on ESPN.

Ratings for the 2006 ESPN telecast dropped nearly 50 percent from NBC’s 2005 telecast.  NBC’s lowest rating ever for the Breeders’ Cup was in 2004; yet that telecast had a higher rating than four of the five years that ESPN has done the telecast.  Only the ESPN telecast in 2010 starring the charismatic Zenyatta topped NBC’s bottom rating.

The limits of cable television vis-à-vis network television are easily discerned:  approximately 16 million households in the United States do not subscribe to cable television and this equates to five percent of viewers.

ESPN is a dedicated sports channel and this focus provides it with the ability to cross sell by promoting niche events like the Breeders’ Cup on non-racing sports programming.  However, as both college football and the Breeders’ Cup have found, the downside is the exclusion of millions of television households. The TV ratings for the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic would undoubtedly have been higher had the event been on network television, especially with Zenyatta’s ability to attract viewers who do not normally follow horse racing.

An important inference from the BCS and Breeders’ Cup cable TV decision is that the Triple Crown races should remain on network television.  These are U. S. racing’s global showcases and need to be available to the widest possible audience.  The Kentucky Derby in particular is suited to network primetime.

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business

Originally published in the Blood-Horse.  Used with permission.


  1. While it is true that you don’t have as many viewers available on broadcast vs. network TV, the viewers you do get on cable are more desirable to ad buyers, so most sports are able to sustain the ratings hit taken by airing on cable instead of over-the-air television. While yes, the BC could have gotten more viewers if Zenyatta’s effort aired in prime time on ABC, but it might not have gotten enough additional viewers to warrant doing such (though ABC could have made that switch since the Saturday Night Football game that night on ABC was a game that originally had been slated as a 10:15 PM ET game on ESPN, with that week’s games moved back to 9:15 PM ET following a 7:00-9:15 PM ET BC telecast on ABC that included the Classic).

    The real problem with Disney is they are totally de-emphasizing sports on ABC, partially because of wanting to maximize revenue with the various ESPN networks, but also because from what I’ve read in the past year on boards focusing on sports broadcasting, ABC stations in the Mountain and Pacific time zones that are not owned and operated by the network want as little sports programming as possible, in part because in some cases, they actually make more money from showing an infomercial over a regular program or sporting event.

    That said, I agree with trying to maximize viewership. What really needs to be done is for tracks to cooperate when needed, and in some cases, be perfecting willing to move races into the evening (east coast time) when possible, particularly so they can air in east coast prime time. On Saturdays, and especially in the summer, that has become a virtual wasteland where ratings have in some instances gone into the toilet and where NBC in particular I think would go for a monthly series of Saturday night telecasts that could air from 8:00-11:00 PM ET/5:00-8:00 PM ET. A perfect example of how this could be done would be this example that would air on Saturday, June 18, the Saturday after the Belmont Stakes as potentially a perfect follow-up to the Triple Crown races (all times for the races in this example are eastern time):

    8:09 — The Grade 2, $250,000 New York Stakes (F-M Turf) from Belmont Park

    8:25 — The Grade 3, $100,000 Jefferson Cup (3YO Turf) from Churchill Downs

    8:41 — The Grade 2, $150,000 Hollywood Oaks (3YOF) from Hollywood Park

    8:57 — The Grade 3, $125,000 Regret Stakes (3YOF Turf) from Churchill Downs

    9:13 — The Grade 2, $150,000 A Gleam (F-M Sprinters) from Hollywood Park

    9:29 — The Grade 3, $125,000 Norther Dancer (3YO) from Churchill Downs

    9:45 — The Grade 1, $300,000 Triple Bend (3+ Sprinters) from Hollywood Park

    10:04 — The Grade 2, $200,000 Fleur de Lis (F-M) from Churchill Downs

    10:22 — The Grade 1, $350,000 Charles Wittingham (3+ Turf) from Hollywood Park

    10:40 — The Grade 1, $600,000 Stephen Foster (3+) from Churchill Downs

    This is how horse racing can be presented outside the Triple Crown on the networks in a fast-paced format with 10 races contested in a little over two and a half hours of a three-hour broadcast. Such a night can also include special wagers that include:

    Pick 4s on the first and last four races of the telecast (each with a guaranteed minimum pool that can be determined).

    Pick 3s on every possible set of consecutive races.

    Doubles on every possible pair of consecutive races.

    A 10-cent pick-nine on the Churchill and Hollywood races with a $1 Million guaranteed pool. Such a wager can serve as a test for the Breeders’ Cup, where I think a 10-cent pick nine (with nine races on Saturday instead of eight) would be VERY appealing to lottery players who might not normally play the horses, but would enticed at the opportunity to win millions on a 10-cent wager (as for the Breeders’ Cup, I would have such a wager carry a $5 million guarantee).

    There would be additional opportunities to do such throughout the year in varying formats, but this particular opportunity on Fathers Day weekend looks like one that would work very well coming off the Triple Crown as it could serve for casual fans as the first big day of racing in the second half of the season.

    I also suspect if the Breeders’ Cup leaves Disney after its current contract expires, it winds up back on NBC and becoming a permanent night event (which may happen anyway to get new wagering dollars from the Asia-Pacific region that could see the high nine figures if not over $1 BILLION or more). If that happened, I could see it done this way:

    Friday: Five Races (Marathon goes back to Saturday) from 8:00-10:00 PM ET (Juvenile Fillies, Juvenile Fillies Turf and Filly-Mare Sprint) on Versus or USA Network and 10:00-11:00 PM ET on NBC (Filly-Mare Turf and Ladies Classic).

    Saturday: Nine Races on NBC from 4:30-11:00 PM ET.

    This to me might be a case where prime time horse racing helps both sides: The sport for exposure, and NBC as they would get viewers who’d otherwise never watch the network, especially on a Saturday night and even more so in the summer.

    The sport definitely needs to get better exposure, but to do it, the people involved with the sport need to be very flexible with scheduling in order to make it happen.

  2. C. Merriweather says

    Logic is hopelessly flawed in this piece. The assumption that by excluding five percent of TV households, ESPN automatically leads to much larger percentage drops in ratings doesn’t compute. Especially since ratings for the ABC portion of the Cup usually match those of the later marquee races on ESPN. Most of the audience who is interested, transports from channel to channel.
    Ratings in sports are about the competitors, storylines, promotion and the programming it competes with.
    Auburn vs. Oregon is not as interesting as Alabama vs. Texas – especially with Cam Newton a major protagonist.
    Bernadini vs. Lava Man was not compelling, especially since Barbaro hung over that first ESPN Breeders’ Cup.
    Zenyatta in 2010 was the first time a major racing star made it to the Breeders’ Cup since they fractionalized the ratings by spreading the event over two days. In 2007 they split the audience and got the rain at Monmouth. In 2008 there was no Big Brown. 2009 there was no Rachel.
    Meanwhile, the years the Breeders’ Cup has been on ESPN have seen massive increases in revenue.
    What are horse racing’s leaders supposed to try to do? Chase fictional “exposure” on dinosaur TV networks, or maximize revenue? You can’t feed horses, fund purses or pay mutuel tellers with exposure.

  3. Merriweather is the one with the flawed logic. How can a network viewer transport to ESPN if he has no cable? Also, Merriweather implies that the Breeders’ Cup switch to ESPN is repsonsible for its revenue increases? How so? Lastly, four out of five BCS bowl games suffer massive ratings declines after switching from network TV to cable and this is because the games were not as good? Sure, and how about a bridge I would like to sell in Brooklyn.

  4. Bill,

    “The Kentucky Derby in particular is suited to network primetime.”

    I would agree, but I wonder about the brand, the infield, the day, which has a tremendous history.

    I think the Super Bowl moved to a Saturday would help the partygoers; and UK and European TV ratings would sky. However, is it worth changing “Super Bowl Sunday”?


  5. PTP:

    If it were not for the fact Comcast just took over NBC from GE and is in the middle of getting their people in place, I think we would have seen THIS year’s Derby be the first contested at night (something we actually almost had last year, and would have if the rain had not stopped when it did as Churchill had actually contemplated pushing back the card to allow the rain to go through). Given the TV ratings from the Derby and fact that if it were in prime time, it would have been the #1 rated show of the week EACH of the last two years for the week in question, I think Comcast/NBC will insist on next year’s Derby being at night if the TV rating (10.3 the last two years) holds where it does, since that is essentially ratings gold these days given how bad Saturday night TV ratings normally are.