A while back we started getting TVG network on our digital package. There was a time when I would flip on the channel and become addicted for hours at a time watching races I knew nothing about until ten minutes before post time and didn’t care about. Granted, it was probably because of how fast and furious races could come, but I was probably ready to dance on horse racing’s grave before then and now I often quietly cheer for the sport to stop shooting itself in the foot and make a return to American consciousness.
So I have to say I like the Breeder’s Cup’s new deal with NBC that will put the Cup on NBC and NBC Sports Network starting this year. After the Cup Classic was relegated to cable the past few years, the main NBC network will now put the Classic on in primetime. Don’t get too excited – we’re talking about Saturday, also known as “the night that doesn’t exist as far as the networks are concerned”, which nonetheless is being increasingly colonized by sports like ABC’s “Saturday Night Football” college football franchise – but it should still help the Cup’s aura as the championship of horse racing. Anything that focuses the masses’ attention more on the Cup and less on the Triple Crown can only be good for the sport – as does building a strong identity of being on NBC, which will now have both.
ESPN is pulling a “they didn’t fire us, we quit” card, and may now be out of the horse racing business. But this deal is very, very good for NBC and NBC Sports Network, especially since the non-Classic races may be up there with some of the biggest non-hockey programming on NBCSN. With NBC now being so strongly attached to horse racing, it’s easy to see them loading up even more on the sport, especially to fill time on NBCSN, which could use all the events it can get. NBC and NBCSN already have this past summer’s “Summer at Saratoga” series (highlighted by the famed Travers Stakes) and have signed up to show many of the Derby prep races this spring. I could see NBCSN loading up on as many relatively top-notch horse races as it can on Saturday afternoons outside college football season, especially on weekends when NBC has golf commitments, which can certainly only be good for the sport in the long term.
Only one other sporting event has moved from ESPN to NBC since the wars started – and the Belmont Stakes had actually reached an agreement before the NBC/Comcast merger became final. Fox has so far been more successful at taking events away from ESPN, highlighted by the World Cup, and ESPN has been more successful to this point at taking events from NBC than the reverse, highlighted by Wimbledon. To pick up a real win over ESPN, even a small one, has to feel huge inside the NBC Sports offices, and goes a long way towards proving that smaller events can have a home on NBC Sports Network. No wonder ESPN’s denying it was a real “win”. If they were interested, they have to have legitimate concerns right now.