NBC hopes to drive new viewers to racing's premier event

NBC is shifting Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic to primetime, but it may be too late to generate new viewer enthusiasm for a sport that lost its TV luster years ago.

If the switch from afternoon to nighttime for the last race on the card, the $5 million Classic, had happened back in 2009, when superfilly Zenyatta was garnering national attention and engineered a historic come-from-behind win at the Breeders’ Cup, it might have helped horse racing garner new fans. This year’s event, however, lacks any true equine star power.

That said, NBC Sports programming president Jon Miller said the two days of Breeders’ Cup coverage that begins Friday will be “welcoming to the novice viewer. We want to try to generate new fans.”

Because of a conflict with Notre Dame football on Saturday, the Breeders’ Cup will move to NBC Sports Network and off NBC, where it aired from 1984-2005, before moving over to ABC-ESPN. (The Classic will still air on NBC.)

During those years when football and racing clashed on NBC, the Irish would move the starting time of its games to accommodate the Breeders’ Cup. With Notre Dame playing so well this year, that wouldn’t even be up for debate.

There has been little pushback from the racing community on the move from broadcast to cable, but horse racing has practically no leverage these days. Ratings have fallen, attendance is down at most tracks around the country, and interest has tumbled since the days when Seabiscuit was a national hero and Santa Anita would regularly draw 50,000 fans for a Sunday afternoon.

And events leading to the cancellation of HBO’s “Luck” have helped spur concern by some who read racing coverage only when tragedy strikes about how the horses are treated at the racetrack, making some queasy about the sport.

But what makes racetrackers happy, however, is that NBC is fully committed to the sport. The net signed a four-year deal in January with the Breeders’ Cup.

Miller said the Breeders’ Cup is perfect for NBC Sports Network, which handles horse racing all year round.

From a TV standpoint, racing’s crown jewel continues to be the Kentucky Derby, which drew 14.8 million earlier this year. That was off the from 16.5 million in 2010 but is still relatively healthy.

Would NBC consider making a Breeders’ Cup-like move and switching the Derby — always held the first Saturday of May at Churchill Downs in Louisville — to a primetime post time? The race has annually gone off at approximately 5:30 p.m. ET.

The track put up lights a few years ago to make it doable, but there are differing opinions.

“It’s been discussed, but NBC has said it’s not their aim,” said track announcer Tom Hammond. “As of now. I don’t know if you would gain additional viewers if you change. The Derby is a whole series of events, and to cut it to a primetime show would shorten the drama and the experience.”

Miller said there are ongoing talks about a primetime Derby.

“We will continue to have those discussions with Churchill Downs,” Miller said. “If the folks at Churchill Downs are interested, then it’s a possibility.”

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