Breeders Cup 2015: Underneath American Pharoah, a Cautionary Tale

Horse Racing may be a sport steeped in tradition, but those traditions are proving to be more in conflict with the realities of the 2010’s than ever:

The traditionalists may have had their dream scenario with American Pharoah completing the modern version of Horse Racing’s “Grand Slam” in winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the daytime at Keeneland, but the blowback from doing that is turning out to be much larger than I had anticipated.  For everyone who was so gung-ho on this Breeders’ Cup being entirely in the daytime and while it definitely was great for those who actually were at Keeneland to see this BC (as on-track handle was actually up from 2014, but only 2.5%), the 2015 BC should serve as a cautionary tale as to why you can no longer have an all-daytime Breeders’ Cup, at least in the Eastern time zone.  The FACT that even with American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner of the Breeders’ Cup era in the Classic that overall handle was down 2.4% from 2014 speaks volumes as to how much has changed and how behind the times Horse Racing really is.

Of course, this was not entirely the fault of Keeneland, as the people there actually did yeoman’s work on having the place ready for the BC and by all accounts should host the Breeders’ Cup again.  Two things can, however, be directly be pointed at Keeneland: Their wanting the BC to be on their traditional closing weekend of the fall meet (October 30-31) and a refusal to install lights.  Both of these contributed heavily to the decline in wagering in 2015 when wagering should have not only been up, but up substantially.

As originally noted in my blog from November 1 and in a second blog done a day later, handle should have been up substantially on this BC (by as much as 20%, which would have returned handle to 2010 levels), especially given for many in the northeast, 2015 was the first time since 2010 people were not dealing with either a “100 year storm” (a freak snowstorm in 2011 a week before the BC and Sandy the Sunday and Monday before the BC in 2012) or with long-term effects of such a storm (aftereffects of Sandy in 2013-’14).  While some have argued that Beholder’s scratching from the Classic cost the BC a significant amount of handle from that race, that by itself would have been nowhere near enough to make up the difference.  The facts people were still at work when Friday’s BC races took place, Saturday’s BC races started when many (especially on the west coast) were still asleep and (even if only for a race or two) the loss of Hong Kong because of this BC being in the daytime were huge factors in the handle decline, not to mention the Mets in their first World Series since 2000 that basically hijacked the conversation on Sports Talk Radio both in New York and nationally to where even the NFL (the 800-pound gorilla of sports) was squeezed (something that never happens) with BC talk practically nonexistent.

This is where Keeneland’s refusal to install lights came back to bite Breeders’ Cup, Ltd.  Had there been lights at Keeneland, this BC could have been one week later on November 6 & 7, and in fact, I had previously wrote this past summer in numerous places the BC should have been pushed back a week and moved to Churchill Downs to get American Pharoah’s final start away from the World Series and so it could be in prime time and run to 11:00 PM Eastern Time.  Had the BC been a week later and run to 11:00 PM Eastern Time, it would have been opposite LSU-Alabama on CBS, but that game didn’t have anywhere near the national appeal that the Mets being in the World Series had, and it would been reflected in the TV ratings (ironically, the 2011 regular season meeting between LSU and Alabama set precedents that give NBC’s parent Comcast the right to demand lights be installed at any BC site even if contracts say otherwise).

While as it was the TV Rating was up 53 percent from 2014, no matter what time of day the BC was going to be on it would have gone up solely because of American Pharoah being in the Classic.  That said, it’s quite likely the ratings for 18-49, which matter much more to advertisers were likely at best up only slightly if not even or more likely down with much of the actual audience being over 50 years of age.  It would not surprise me if that was the case given if you turned 30 years old in 2015, you were no older than SIX the last time a FINALS game in any of the “big four” professional sports (Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals) began before 6:00 PM Eastern Time and the overwhelming majority of such events since 1991 have started at 8:00 PM Eastern Time or later.  We now have adults who in many cases were not even born the last time a true championship game in any of the “big four” pro sports was truly played in the daytime and have been conditioned to believe that any such event must be at night to matter.  Time of day with many under 30 does make a difference, especially with more affluent Millennials who think nothing of blowing $500-1,000+ per night at clubs (especially in New York), being out all night and not getting home in many cases until 5:00-6:00 the next morning.  That is the generation this sport needs to bring in and they likely will only come in on those terms.

If this Breeders’ Cup had run to 11:00 PM ET on November 6 & 7, the TV rating in my opinion would likely have been up at least 150% if not more, and with 18-49 more likely at least double if not triple or even quadruple what it was.  This would have been even more likely given if on November 7 American Pharoah’s final start in the BC Classic at Keeneland had been around 10:40 PM ET, it likely also would have brought in a considerable number of the nine million viewers Saturday Night Live got that night to see Donald Trump host as many would have likely tuned in early to see AP in the Classic (and even more so because I would think NBC would have done considerable cross-promotion between AP being in the BC Classic with “SNL” (which does very well with 18-49) a half-hour after the BC telecast ended in the eastern half of the country and given late local news on CBS and ABC stations were delayed by football that night in the eastern half of the country).  That number (a 6.6 rating) was the biggest for “SNL” in almost four years (January 7, 2012) and the largest when it did not have an NFL Playoff doubleheader (as it did on 1/7/’12) leading into it in a much longer time.  This is the kind of blown opportunity not realized for Horse Racing and the sport as a whole in large part due to traditionalists in many cases getting very upset at the mere thought of having the sport’s championship races at night and running to an hour when many under 30 are more likely to be watching.

This Breeders’ Cup showed why it was obvious any track hosting the BC (including Keeneland if it were to host again) now needs to be required to install lights so it can be at night and go to 11:00 PM Eastern Time.  While traditionalists and those older may not want to be up to 11:00 PM on the east coast, the fact is, many younger and more important to advertisers are far more likely to up then and handle likely would be up substantially.  This likely would have to happen anyway if the Asia-Pacific region (Australia and Japan in addition to Hong Kong) came fully on board as the handle from doing so would be too big to ignore.  Hopefully, people at Breeders’ Cup, Ltd. take a cue and make it clear that beginning as early as with 2018, any site wanting the Breeders’ Cup will have to have lights installed with a warning to Santa Anita and Del Mar that their Breeders’ Cups in 2016 and ’17 respectively could be in jeopardy of being moved to a track with lights unless they are able to install lights (even temporary ones) within a reasonable timeframe of the Breeders’ Cup.  If the Sport of Kings is going to thrive in the 21st century in the US, it is going to have to join the rest of the sports world and have many of its major events at night.  Newer generations of adults have grown up expecting championships to be at night and this is only going to be much bigger in the years to come.  If the sport fails to account for this, it won’t thrive the way it can.

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