Churchill Downs to get 2018 Breeders’ Cup: Has BC Ltd. learned its lesson?

The Wall Street Journal reported early Monday (April 25) that Churchill Downs is expected to land the 2018 Breeders’ Cup.

In my opinion, this could potentially be the first of several Breeders’ Cups in a row that is hosted by Churchill Downs for one simple reason: lights. Breeders’ Cup, Ltd., in my opinion may have learned their lesson with last year’s BC that while Keeneland is a great venue, the lack of lights there likely cost BC Ltd. tens of millions in handle as noted in a blog I did last November, with NBC likely wanting the BC telecast to on Saturday be 8:00-11:00 PM Eastern Time with an hour on Friday as well from 10:00-11:00 PM Eastern Time.

While on-track handle at Keeneland itself was actually up 2.5% compared to Santa Anita a year ago, overall handle was DOWN 2.4% in a year handle should have been up substantially, as much as 20% that would have returned handle on the BC to 2010 levels. While one big factor in that was the Mets being in the World Series and basically in New York making BC talk with very limited exceptions nonexistent, that could easily have been worked around by having the BC one week later from November 6-7, getting it away from the World Series (when Keeneland was awarded last year’s BC, it was widely believed the entire MLB season was going to start and finish a week earlier than it did but apparently the Pope’s visit at the end of last September forced MLB to move everything back one week because Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia would have been unavailable for either a rainout makeup or one-game playoff last Sept. 28). With the BC a week later and at night, handle on the 2015 BC is likely up 20% from 2014  because it’s not taking place when people are still at work in the east (on Friday) or (on Saturday) when many in the west are still asleep. Add in Hong Kong and perhaps the rest of the Asia-Pacific region and handle on the BC has the potential to skyrocket by having the BC Distaff (Friday) and Classic (Saturday) going off at 10:40 PM ET (Saturday and Sunday morning in Japan and Hong Kong and Saturday and Sunday afternoon in Australia).

Then there is the matter of those under 30 in many cases being conditioned to believe championship events must be at night to matter, mainly due to the fact the “big four” pro sports have had ALL of their championship events at night for the past 25 years (if you turn 30 in 2016, you would have been no older than FIVE when Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals, the last such championship event to be in the daytime took place). If Horse Racing is to have credibility outside of the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown with this audience, the BC has to be at night with Horse Racing joining the rest of the mainstream sports world in that regard. Too many people in Horse Racing seem to be too stubborn to realize the mentality younger people have that has been ingrained in them over the last quarter-century.

While the TV rating for last year’s BC Classic on NBC was up 53% over 2014, that to me is totally misleading because that entire TV rating increase as I understood it was those 50 and older who do not matter to most ad buyers. The rating for 18-49 who matter to advertisers was likely up far less than 53% if at all as what time of day an event takes place DOES MATTER to many under 30, especially those for whom Saturday is the only day then can do certain things in the daytime and don’t have then for events like the Breeders’ Cup. It would not surprise me if the 2016 BC Classic, even without a TC winner like last year gets a higher rating with 18-49 solely because of it airing in prime time when younger viewers can more easily watch. Had American Pharoah’s BC Classic gone off at 10:40 PM ET on November 7 instead of 5:50 PM ET on October 31, the rating, especially with 18-49 would have been considerably higher if for no other reason than the fact that Donald Trump was hosting Saturday Night Live last November 7, which drew its best rating in four years and many would have tuned into NBC early for the BC Classic ahead of that.

Hopefully, BC Ltd. and the sport learned its lesson and now must make clear to traditionalists that there is no way the BC can be entirely in the daytime like it was a year ago at Keeneland ever again. Between the potential for handle from the Asia-Pacific region and the fact many under 30 only consider championship events to be those contested at night, Breeders’ Cup, Ltd. needs to make it clear the old way will no longer work in the long run and you have to have events when those who are younger want them to be if you want to bring them in.

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