While Breeders’ Cup, Ltd. considers Lexington “The New Standard” of being a Breeders’ Cup host, why that is not good enough

As we officially move into the Holiday season for 2015, some more thoughts on what happened at the end of last month at Keeneland as a Thanksgiving Eve (Nov. 25) article at The Paulick Report noted Breeders’ Cup, Ltd. considers Lexington the new standard for host cities:

That part is no surprise, given Lexington and Keeneland went to great lengths to make this Breeders’ Cup as positive an experience as possible.  The problems, as previously noted in three different blogs (Nov. 1, Nov. 2, and Nov. 19) were heavily masked by this Breeders’ Cup including the final start for American Pharoah in the Classic.  Lexington may have turned out to be a great host city and Keeneland may be a great place to host the Breeders’ Cup, but as clearly noted in the last of the three earlier blogs linked to, there are things BC Ltd. and Keeneland failed to realize have changed with our society in general.  The biggest is the fact many under 30 in particular have grown accustomed to championship events being at night.

While many older (especially baseball fans) long for the days we had World Series games and other championship events in the daytime, the fact is, people are busier than ever and if they are up in the daytime on a weekend, it often is for organized activities and other things that can’t be done during the week.  That is just one reason why every championship event in the “Big Four” pro sports starting with Game 2 of the 1991 NBA Finals has been at night (Game 1 of the ’91 Finals was the last to this day in the daytime). A lot of it, however, can be traced to a Supreme Court decision in 1984.

That decision, which ended the NCAA’s monopoly on College Football broadcasts would have a massive ripple effect few have ever realized on all of sports.  Except for Game 6 in 1987, that would wind up being the last year a World Series game played outside the Pacific Time Zone started in the afternoon, with every World Series game since played at night.  This was in part because of the sudden explosion of college football broadcasts that began with the 1984 season making it so the sheer number of games airing made it difficult for even the World Series to gain traction in many cases, especially in areas where especially today college football is actually bigger than the NFL, for many years now considered to be the 800-pound gorilla of sports.  From there, the other major pro sports leagues and even college sports in the US followed suit if they hadn’t already.  It’s at the point where if you turn(ed) 30 years old in the second half of 2015 or in the first half of 2016, you were no older than five in most cases when we last had a championship game in any of the major US sports in the daytime.

This is where Keeneland and Breeders’ Cup, Ltd. failed with what otherwise was especially for those actually at Keeneland in most cases a highly successful Breeders’ Cup.  As noted in all three blogs, overall handle wound up being down on this BC by 2.4% from 2014, which as noted in my November 19 blog should have been up given factors noted in prior blogs.  The facts that Friday’s BC Races were when many were still at work, Saturday’s BC Races started when many were still asleep or otherwise having stuff that can only be done on Saturday afternoon in many cases and the loss of wagering from Hong Kong due to the BC being in the daytime in the US were the three major contributing factors.  Another was that even NFL discussion in many cases was drowned out by the fact the Mets were in the World Series, which especially in New York dominated sports talk radio to the point where it was difficult for other sports to get anything in and Breeders’ Cup with very limited exceptions was nonexistent.

Part of the problem was when Keeneland was awarded the 2015 BC, the World Series was expected to be one week earlier (with the 2015 MLB season likely beginning March 30-31 and the regular season ending on September 27) given Major League Baseball being adamant in the past about not wanting World Series games in November.   The entire season (except for the All-Star Game) likely wound up one week later due to Pope Francis’s visit to Philadelphia the week the MLB season would have ended if it had been like it were expected in all likelihood for the same reasons NFL Commissioner Roger Godell was specifically asked by the Archbishop of Philadelphia to not have the Eagles play at home the week of the Pope’s visit.   That led to the scenario we wound up having and why once it was known the World Series was on the same days as the Breeders’ Cup, the BC should have been moved back one week, especially given races major races in Japan are later on the calendar this year than in years past.   If Keeneland had lights, the Breeders’ Cup could easily have been pushed back one week, which would have worked better for everyone involved.

Given all the factors at play noted in earlier blogs, even with shorter fields and heavy favorites in a few BC races, overall handle on this Breeders’ Cup should not only have been up (it actually was up 2.5% on track), it should have been up substantially and most likely by double-digit percentage points.  While there are those who argue for instance the scratch of Beholder from the Breeders’ Cup Classic cost some handle that is true to some extent, even if that had not happened and every race drew a full field of 14, handle likely at best would only have been even with last year because of the other factors at play.

The TV rating also when looking beyond the headline showed where things went wrong.  Regardless of the time of day this BC took place, American Pharoah being in the BC Classic was going to result in a sharp ratings increase.  The rating in fact was up 53% from 2014 because of this, however, that in this case was likely misleading as most, if not all of that increase likely came from those 50 and over who do not matter to advertisers.  Advertisers care about those 18-49, and that rating likely at best was only up slightly from 2014 (when the BC telecast was in prime time at Santa Anita).  Had this BC been both in a week later (November 6-7) and in prime time, preferably to 11:00 PM Eastern Time, the overall TV rating for this BC would likely have been at least double what it actually was even airing opposite LSU-Alabama on CBS (the 2011 meeting between the schools actually set precedents that allow Comcast to actually force a track that doesn’t have lights to install such so the BC can air well into prime time).  18-49 would likely have seen its number jump substantially and 18-34 likely would have rocketed up even more given Millennials (who make up the entire 18-34 demo) in most cases have grown up with championship events being exclusively at night.  Add to that the fact the November 7 edition of Saturday Night Live that was hosted by Donald Trump brought NBC nine million viewers, the most for “SNL” since January 7, 2012 (when it was following an NFL Playoff doubleheader) and the overall rating for the Breeders’ Cup on NBC likely would have been up at least triple what it was (or approximately 160%), especially with American Pharoah’s BC Classic start likely in that scenario going off around 10:40 PM Eastern Time.  Those numbers could have been even higher with key demographics that likely would have tuned in earlier to NBC to see American Pharoah in the BC Classic if it were less than an hour before Mr. Trump hosted “SNL” that Saturday night.

The fact there was no thought given by BC Ltd. to insist Keeneland install lights so the BC could have been a week later nor considering if necessary moving the event once it was known in September 2014 the World Series was going to be the same week as the BC shows how in my view Breeders’ Cup, Ltd. was short-sighted in that regard.  Not being flexible in this case cost BC Ltd. a chance to link the BC Classic to Mr. Trump hosting “SNL,” as I suspect with both events being less than an hour apart, NBC would likely in my opinion have been looking at doing some serious cross-promotion that easily could have included “SNL” cast members promoting American Pharoah’s final start.  That was a blown opportunity for a sport that needs to make its own breaks if it wants to be relevant outside of the Triple Crown events in the mainstream.  It’s also why the Breeders’ Cup needs to join the rest of the sports world that has its major events at night and do the same, no matter how many (especially those older) want everything to stay as it is.

Lexington, KY and Keeneland may want to host the Breeders’ Cup again, but to do so, it has to be made clear lights will have to be installed so the BC can go to 11:00 PM Eastern Time if Keeneland is hosting the events.  Traditionalists may not want lights at Keeneland, but the fact is, societal changes as a whole coupled with many other factors are why this will have to be done, with BC Ltd. having to require any BC host have lights for racing at night in the future no matter how many scream and moan about it.

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One Response to While Breeders’ Cup, Ltd. considers Lexington “The New Standard” of being a Breeders’ Cup host, why that is not good enough

  1. Like this analogy, and completely agree. Lights at night, and more night racing would be a big key to increasing fans, bettors, and higher TV ratings for those stations airing races regularly, as well as the specials. Most of us in the thoroughbred breeding and racing sport, have been saying this for years. Not sure how right I am, but KY seems to balk at different venues, or having someone make demands necessary to improve the business end of the sport, like the increase in fans, and races shown for those who bet off track as well as fans who do not bet. It is possible a request to install lights at the track was made some time ago, but was rejected by KY; would not be surprised.

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