That is the question that I say is yes and have for years.
In spite of there being one additional race on the Breeders’ Cup this year as opposed to recent years (first time with 14 BC Races since 2012), handle for the Breeders’ Cup as a whole was DOWN four percent from last year (Source: The Blood-Horse).
This to me is not a surprise at all, though unlike 2015 at Keeneland, in my opinion, Breeders’ Cup, Ltd. was in a no-win situation this time, something I noted was possible in an earlier blog where I suggested before the 2019-’21 BC sites were announced the 2020 BC should be at Del Mar on Thanksgiving Weekend. While in my view this originally should have been the first Breeders’ Cup held mainly at night, there was ONE major factor playing against that: The Mid-Term Elections that come/came up the Tuesday after the Breeders’ Cup.
This was likely a much bigger factor than MANY realize, especially given the political climate we have had in recent years, intensifying only that much more since Donald Trump was elected President in 2016. The rhetoric has been back-and-forth, and it has caused many much more hotly contested races than we have seen leading up to what is/was considered to be the single most important mid-term elections in US History. There are many on both sides that think this could be a life-or-death struggle, with people on both ends refusing to back down. This has also led to a record amount of spending for a mid-term election, including many more ads than seen before, including possibly going as far (and if anyone can confirm, it would be appreciated) as to cause NBC stations (and those of other networks) where such races are close to have to preempt all or part of their prime time lineups, particularly on Friday (11/2) and Saturday (11/3), for political ad buys that would have prevented the BC from airing those two nights in prime time on NBC, normally a “death slot” for regular shows and such possibly continuing on Sunday (11/4) and Monday (11/5) where such races are extremely tight.
The mid-terms likely also had an effect on coverage of not only the Breeders’ Cup, but other sports, as such overshadowed many other events going on, even in some circles an Alabama-LSU game that was the biggest matchup between those schools since 2011 (ironically the last time the BC was at Churchill Downs and also the game that set precedents that allow networks to demand events be moved to prime time even if it violates contracts). A nighttime BC in 2018 would have had the Saturday races opposite that game as well as Oklahoma-Texas Tech on ABC, Notre Dame-Northwestern on ESPN and UCLA-Oregon on FOX among other games.
That said, it still doesn’t excuse the fact that handle should have been UP on this year’s Breeders’ Cup, given two factors:
- There was one additional race in this BC as opposed to recent years.
- Field size was UP from a year ago, with an average of 12.6 horses per race.
The new format this year also was promising, with something many have wanted for years, and that is all of the BC races for two year olds on Friday and all of the races for older horses on Saturday. There were some races, especially on Saturday, where handle was down considerably that was in some circles directly attributed to the early start time for the Breeders’ Cup.
So what went wrong?
First, it was the fact either Breeders’ Cup Ltd. was being willfully ignorant of the fact many people were still at work when Friday’s BC races took place or not able to run the Breeders’ Cup races at night due to what was noted above, especially with the political situation being what it is. Regardless, while Friday handle was solid at $52,000,000 or so, having the BC Races from 7:30-11:00 PM Eastern Time (with most likely a 5:30 PM first post), it likely would have been at least $10 Million higher if it had been at night, after work for most people, even if there would have been complaints from those older about the races running to 11:00 PM on the East Coast. What many who complain fail to take into account is while some can take Friday off for the Breeders’ Cup events, especially after Labor Day, most can’t do that other than “Black Friday” (day after Thanksgiving) and maybe the Friday between Christmas and New Year’s (plus January 2 in years New Year’s Day is a Thursday). This is especially true on Wall Street, and even more so when BC Friday also is the day the unemployment number for the previous month comes out. That forces many on Wall Street to be at their desks all day for trading, especially at brokerage firms that deal with clients who are from outside the US that expect people at be at their desks during business hours and in many cases even during after-hours trading.
Second, having all the Breeders’ Cup Races on Saturday in the afternoon as proven this year and also in 2015 can have a major negative impact on handle. The early start of the program at 10:45 AM and first BC Race at Noon Eastern Time is when many, especially those who are out at the clubs until 3:00-4:00 AM locally or later are either just getting up for the day or are still asleep, especially those who think nothing of blowing $500-1,000 a night at the clubs, particularly in New York (you can see this almost every Friday and Saturday night in particular). Add to that Hong Kong likely unable to take any BC races because they occur in the overnight hours there and it is a recipe for a handle drop. Several races, especially early saw handle drop in some cases sharply (including the BC Sprint, reportedly DOWN 18% year-to-year in spite of only having one less horse in it).
Third, and I seem to be one of the few with this opinion inside the sport, is something I have repeatedly noted in these posts: The fact we have a generation outside of those who actually care about the sport that has the mentality that any sport for it to be taken seriously by them must have their championship events at night, running to at least 11:00 PM on the east coast. This mentality has been ingrained in most of them since birth, as going that late has mostly been the case with ALL of the “Big 4” sports in the US (Baseball, American Football, Basketball and Hockey) since 1991 starting every such championship game after 6:00 PM Eastern Time and except for the Super Bowl, usually after 7:00 PM ET and more often than not after 8:00 PM ET. That is something many within the Sport of Kings refuse to acknowledge as well as refuse to acknowledge the changes in our society as a whole, where many consider the daytime hours to be mainly for work and doing certain other activities that can realistically only be done in the daytime while nighttime is for championship events. While in a perfect world, having the BC Races in the daytime is the way it should be, the reality is, we live in a much different society and playing under much different rules than when John Gaines first envisioned the Breeders’ Cup in 1982, which was conceived back when Horse Racing regularly had time slots for telecasts in the fall in the days when the NCAA had a monopoly on College Football broadcasts, often restricting teams to a handful of appearances each year. The Supreme Court’s 1984 ruling that made that monopoly illegal is why we have seen Saturdays become wall-to-wall college football from Noon until after 2:00 AM Sunday morning in the east most weekends in the fall, something Mr. Gaines could never have envisioned back when the BC was first conceived.
The sheer number of games on TV have just since 2006 (when ESPN first televised the Breeders’ Cup) exploded to where college football is now the 600-pound junior gorilla of sports (while the NFL continues to be the 800-pound gorilla). The sheer number of games being in the daytime also plays into why the World Series, an event many have for years been clamoring for to return to weekend day games still has Saturday games start after 8:00 PM Eastern Time. Even opposite the football games noted previously in this, the Breeders’ Cup still likely would have been NBC’s best shot at a decent television rating on Saturday night given how live sports is the only thing that has done well on Saturday night in recent years (as well as in this case, Friday for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile), with the telecasts likely Friday on NBCSN from 7:30-10:00 PM ET and NBC from 10:00-11:00 PM ET and Saturday entirely on NBC from 4:30-11:00 PM Eastern Time. That likely brings in many 18-49 who don’t care about college football (or football at all), likely giving the BC much more credibility as a championship event than it has now.
Will Breeders’ Cup, Ltd. learn its lesson this time? This year, there were non-sports factors in play so it would not have mattered, nevertheless, this year showed why eventually the Breeders’ Cup either needs to be at night, or as I suggested in my last blog, going back to a single-day event that can be done as a 14-race marathon that splits BC day into two parts: Part One in the daytime featuring all of the two-year-old races plus the Dirt Mile, and the sprint and grass races for females with the first Breeders’ Cup Race at 1:10 PM and the Juvenile at 5:45 PM and Part Two at night following a break with the Turf Sprint, Sprint, Mile (Turf), Distaff, Turf and Classic, that portion starting at 7:10 PM with the final BC Race (the Classic) at 10:40 PM ET. That to me would be a best-of-both worlds scenario: Giving traditionalists what they want in the daytime while the “championship portion” would be at night and to me might be the compromise to keep traditionalists happy while also demonstrating to Millennials that the sport is to be taken seriously with the championship portion at night.
Traditionalists can complain all they want about the prospect of a nighttime BC “running” the experience for them, but the problem is this sport needs to realize the next generation that will replace those who have (or will) pass(ed) away is NOT like earlier generations: They have repeatedly demonstrated over the past two decades they want things when they want them and in that regard are much more demanding than any previous generations have been in that regard. To these generations, time of day has repeatedly proven to matter way more than most people realize, even if they don’t come out and actually that. There is an old saying that actions speak louder than words, and their actions have repeatedly shown that BC Ltd. is NOT listening to the newer generations that think every championship event must be at night or the sport doesn’t hit their radars at all.