The Brock Talk

Friday, July 29, 2011

Summer At Saratoga Success Opens Doors

NBC Sports Group’s Summer at Saratoga series got off to a rousing start last Saturday with the one-hour telecast of the $250,000 Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. 1), one of horse racing’s premier races exclusively for 3-year-old fillies. For the first time in several years, the historic track located in the upstate New York town of Saratoga was featured on network television and they made the most of it.

The Summer at Saratoga series will be featured every Saturday for the next six weeks plus an additional telecast on Sunday, August 7. All programs air from 5:00 – 6:00 pm EDT on either the network’s NBC Sports or on their nationally telecast cable affiliate Versus. This Saturday, the Diana Stakes and the Jim Dandy, both $500,000 grade 1 races, will highlight the Saturday telecast which will air on Versus.

The Diana is for fillies and mares going 1-1/8 miles on the turf while the Jim Dandy is for 3-year-olds going 1-1/8 miles on the dirt. The Jim Dandy is the major local prep race for the Travers Stakes (gr. 1), Saratoga’s signature event and known as the Mid-Summer Derby, to be run August 27. The King’s Bishop Stakes (gr. 1) will also be part of the Aug. 27 telecast on NBC and lists among its possible starters, Uncle Mo and The Factor, both big stars among the 3-year-old ranks this Spring before being sidelined.

According to reports in Thoroughbred Times and, the inaugural Summer at Saratoga telecast drew some 1.18 million viewers who watched It’s Tricky win the Coaching Club American Oaks. To put that in perspective, the Kentucky Derby typically attracts a television audience of approximately 14-16 million viewers while the Belmont Stakes has roughly 5 million watch via television in a non-Triple Crown possible year. Relative to other major sports television ratings, the Derby is typically neck and neck with the Major League Baseball World Series depending which teams make the Fall classic. The San Francisco Giants won game five and the World Series last year over the Texas Rangers in front of a 14.95 million television audience.

The first installment of Summer at Saratoga also attracted more viewers than three of the last five Breeders’ Cups. The Saturday telecasts of the 2006, 2008 and 2009 Breeders’ Cups all fell short of the 1.18 million viewer of last week’s broadcast. Although it was far short of the nearly 3 million who tuned in last year on ESPN to see the strato-popular Zenyatta in her last race before retirement.

Don’t expect these big ratings to continue on the Versus network however. The Versus network is an all-sports network without near the distribution as their bigger brothers over at NBC. They have yet to find a real niche in the very crowded field of national sports networks, with their biggest contract being signed in conjunction with the National Hockey League. The Season at Saratoga premier on NBC attracted roughly the same size audience as Versus gets with their NHL regular season games.

After signing a deal with the NHL at the conclusion of their 2004-05 NHL lockout that cost the league an entire season, NBC Sports and Versus jumped on the opportunity and struck a broadcast deal with the NHL worth. The NBC Sports family has put a great deal of marketing and promotion to the National Hockey League since that contract was first signed and the fans have responded with ratings growth every year since.

It is very possible that the executives at NBC Sports have looked at the vacancy in the American Sports scene in late July and August. When Versus airs the final telecast of the series Sept. 3, Major League Baseball will be nearly four weeks away from the end of their regular season. Although the National Football League Hall of Fame game was scheduled for the afternoon of Aug. 7, it was cancelled due to the NFL lockout.

Even with the NFL preseason resuming, however, NBC Sports suites were keen in observing the NFL preseason games and their start times. Although the Aug. 13 Season at Saratoga telecast will be the same day as many NFL preseason games, the only game set for a national broadcast is Green Bay at Cleveland . And the 7:30 kick-off for that game will be at least 90 minutes after the winner of the Sword Dancer crosses the grassy finish line on Versus.

That pattern holds true the following two weeks of the preseason NFL schedule. New Orleans plays Houston on the same day as the Alabama Stakes (gr. 1) on NBC and the winners of the Travers and King’s Bishop will be out of the test barn and tucked away in their stalls with buckets of hot mash under full assault before New England and Detroit start knocking heads and chipping paint at 8:00 pm.

Having said that, racing still must rally to generate the viewership that NBC vice-presidents have in mind for Summer at Saratoga to be labeled a success – or more importantly – worthy of renewal. Opportunities for races outside the Triple Crown to be telecast by a national network do not present themselves very often. Even the rich and prestigious Breeders’ Cup has been relegated to cable as both days are now shown on the ESPN family of networks.

So the success of the Summer at Saratoga series is potentially very important to horse racing. At a time when the national sports menu is light and even the networks are looking for programming and revenue outside of infomercials, the door has suddenly swung open again for horse racing. It may even be a door similar to the one horse racing slammed shut after World War II when they scoffed at the new technology. Those were disasterous decisions. But telecasts such as the Coaching Club American Oaks last week now have some numbers on which the horse racing supporters at the large networks can rely.

Let’s just keep those numbers up.

NBC/Versus Summer at Saratoga
July 30, Diana and Jim Dandy, 5-6 p.m., VERSUS
Aug. 6, Whitney and Test, 5-6 p.m., VERSUS
Aug. 7, Vanderbilt and Honorable Miss, 5-6 p.m., VERSUS
Aug. 13, Sword Dancer, 5-6 p.m., VERSUS
Aug. 20, Alabama, 5-6 p.m., NBC
Aug. 27, Travers and King’s Bishop, 5-6 p.m., NBC
Sept. 3, Woodward and Forego, 5-6 p.m., VERSUS


Fran Jurga said...

Thanks so much for this background information. Lots I didn't know!

Brock Sheridan said...

Thanks Fran. Hoping we (horse racing) can pull some nice numbers today.