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Monday, August 25, 2008

No Medals For ESPN

- Here's an interesting article in the NY Times about NBC's smashing success with the Olympics, and the efforts of the network's sports chairman Dick Ebersol to make it so. Even eight years ago, Ebersol was already working on having these Games shifted from September back to August.

“If you’re into September, you’re going to lose a big percentage of your male viewers,” Mr. Ebersol said. “There’s N.F.L. coverage on Sundays and Mondays, and college football is now on four or five nights a week. All of that goes away if you start in mid-August.”
Ebersol wanted the swimming and gymnastics events to be available on live TV. Since that meant that the events would have to take place early in the morning (a 12 hour time difference between Beijing and Queens), he went directly to Michael Phelps, who assured him that it would not negatively impact his performance. Which I guess it didn't. (And by the way, his win in the 100 meter fly was the aquatic equivalent of Colonel John's Travers win!)

Ebersol said of Phelps: “He told me: ‘My only real goal is to leave the sport bigger and better than I found it,,,".

I can't help but wish that there was just a fraction of the efforts and dedication described above from the participants of the sport of horse racing, and the network which televises its showcase event. Regardless of who you think is ducking who between Curlin and Big Brown, if the participants' main goal really was to help the sport grow rather than to enrich themselves, they would get this done. And preferably in the match race format that's been discussed. It's high time to leave Ruffian in the past, and thank her for prompting the passage of time which would give such an event a true once-in-a-lifetime feel.

Regarding ESPN, I know that you can't compare the Breeders' Cup and the Olympics. Of course Ebersole had to hustle to make it work - NBC spent $894 million on the rights and had a lot more at stake. The Breeders' Cup is merely small fry by comparison. But, as you recall, ESPN pledged a major effort to make the Breeders' Cup a jewel of the network. Need I once again repeat the quote? OK...."We intend to bring our full arsenal of resources to present, to promote and distribute the storied property as no one else can."

Discussing the deal just prior to ESPN's first telecast in 2006, Breeders' Cup (then interim) CEO Greg Avioli said that rather than for ratings,
"It was designed for significantly more promotion over the months leading up to the Breeders' Cup to grow the property."

Well, I just don't see that kind of dedication from ESPN on at least two key fronts. For one thing, once September rolls around, as Mr. Ebersol noted, college and pro football starts. And horse racing on ESPN disappears. Poof. This past weekend's telecasts were the last time you'll see races on national TV until October 4. Given the fact that most of today's top thoroughbreds have their final preps scheduled for more than "only" three weeks before the Breeders' Cup, most of those horses, including Curlin and Big Brown, will not be in action when Randy Moss and Co. are next seen. Amongst the Breeders' Cup Challenge races that will not be on ESPN are the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Queen Elizabeth II, Lady's Secret, the Goodwood, Alcibiades, the Woodbine Mile and the EP Taylor, Grade 1 races all. (There's also the Flower Bowl, Turf Classic and Vosburgh, all not included on the BC's list of Challenge races, is that right??)

Now, it's partly the Breeders' Cup fault for expanding the Challenge series too much too quickly; can't expect ESPN to televise all of them (especially, and thankfully, races like the mile and a half Turfway Fall Championship. Did you notice that Delosvientos, who thrashed the Marathon-challenged qualified Evening Attire in the Brooklyn, was 9th at 21-1 in the Pac Classic?) But still, one broadcast in the nine weeks leading up the Breeders' Cup is pretty damn weak.

And the other thing that's been bugging me is Filly Friday. No, not the concept nor the hysterical debate about the Ladies' Classic name. But rather the fact that ESPN could, if it wanted to, present the races in prime time. Sunday's Pac Classic ran from 8 to 10 here, a little taste of what could be. I can't recall a similar prime time national broadcast of horse racing at all, can you? It can only really happen with the races on the west coast, since the sport shuns the nighttime for the most part, especially for the bigger stars. It would give the network and the sport a chance to market the event to a wider TV audience than it may usually have. Here's a rare opportunity to present, in prime time, the best horses in training, and races that could be more interesting than the male counterparts the next day.

Yet, not only will it instead be on from 4 until 7 PM in the east.....a time when I can almost guarantee you that nobody but the already-devoted will make at least an effort to tune in, but it's not even on the main ESPN network. It's on ESPN2. That's not prime time in any sense of the word, and it's not appropriate for our championship races. It's more appropriate for those Olympics leftovers such as badminton and archery, presented on the USA Network and CNBC in the late afternoon.


Wind Gatherer said...

You forgot field hockey. I think they are trying to target that audience.

Unknown said...

Alan for commissioner or Thoroughbred Racing ! Good stuff.

Anonymous said...

I am ok with ESPN2 as long as they broadcast in high definition.

The wosrt part of the ESPN/Travers coverage was it was in standard definition.

They might get more football junkies to tune in with a high def broadcast.

Brett said...

Great post Alan. I think NBC's Olympic coverage was horrific (not broadcasting anything live to the MST and PST, not televising the USA bball semifinal game to anyone except the right coast, no track and field events live, etc.) whatever though.

I completely agree with you on the fact ESPN has done nothing for the sport. But where does the Breeders Cup go from ESPN? Not too many options but I am going to throw out a one to you and the readers that will not move the Breeders Cup. Because obviously everyone would want it not in the football calendar.

-Forget about trying to compete with college football or the NFL. You will get crushed and no casual fan will watch. Move all the races to Friday. If you want throw a couple on Thursday. Start coverage 4 PM ET, 1 PT. You could have an 11 race card go potentially to 8ish Pacific time. Lots of racing but still it's the biggest day of the year. Lobby this to whoever wants it from ABC, CBS, and NBC. Somebody would take it. They have nothing better to show on this day. The only potential downfall is the World Series which what do you know, the BC is competing against this year on at least Friday.

So what I would love, first Friday in November, 11-13 race card whatever the NTRA and BC want. Post time pending on what cost it is on around 4 PM ET. And even if it is on the East Coast, they can rent some lights for Belmont (didn't they have that shootout between Sergio and Tiger in Arizona at night with rented lights?).

Too my knowledge nothing would be going on, unless there is some weird Big East football game, hopefully not a Rutgers vs WVU game or something. The sports night would center around the Breeders Cup and looking forward to a football weekend. It could be on national television against all the other crap that is on Friday nights in the fall.

I know it seems to good to be true. Alan, can I trademark it like you wanted to trademark the Curlin vs. Big Brown nighttime idea?

Oh yeah, HD too please.

Anonymous said...

Good post.

By the way, it's Ebersol, not Ebersole. He was also in a plane crash in late 2004; one which killed a son of his.

The ESPN2 racing coverage this past weekend was probably the worst it has ever been. Maybe the worst was when Kenny Mayne did some package on Derby day.

They took over 10 "cuts" or "takes" during the Pacific Classic. Oh, and that was when the horses were on the backstretch! Let's forget all these cuts and have the Trakus system be employed for all future "Win and You're In" pomp and circumstance.

The Hank Goldberg handicapping infotainment bit has reached its end. Goldberg missed on each and every pick. It's too bad Moss and Bailey decide on who they like when the horses enter the gate. Maybe Bailey should hop on a horse and become the 'male Donna Brothers."

Tessitore is becoming annoying with his penchant for the melodrama.

Since any speculator who appears on CNBC discloses his/her financial interests, Tessitore, Moss, Goldberg and anyone else appearing on camera should disclose what they have played (exacta, triples, win, etc.) Come on, we know you bet!

Has Moss ever attempted on-air to explain what his figures are and that which appear in the DRF?

They may use the electronic markers in Europe denoting the length to the finish line and this is the Yanks way of copying the Euros. A camera angle which makes you feel as if you're not sitting in the last row of the clubhouse when they enter the backstretch would be a treat.

All racing should be in HD.

Another problem is that very few winning connections show real joy.

Another thing wrong with ESPN2's coverage was the "whoosh" sound effect when the quarter, half (etc) times were displayed. Why can't anyone use a real running time like they do for swimming or track and field?

Yes, it's ESPN2 and they always have a scrolling score and stats' ticker, but during LIVE RACING, who is likely tuning in to see a score instead of THE RACE? Please, get rid of the ticker during the actual running of the race(s).

No more Big Brown crap unless Dutrow and Iavarone appear LIVE and next to each other, and are asked questions.

Somebody, anybody, please ask Jess Jackson on live television to the masses why he goes before Capitol Hill and talks about integrity in racing, yet he employs Asmussen as the trainer of his greatest horse?

Somebody, anybody, please ask Nick Zito on live television to the masses "Have you ever used steroids on any of your Classic winners before they raced? If you are for God given things in racing, say dirt and grass, since Lasix may be considered man-made, will you never use it again?"

Please, bring back Jack Whitaker!

Alan Mann said...

>>By the way, it's Ebersol, not Ebersole.

Yikes, thanks, that's embarrassing! :-\

And good points all. I've never heard Randy Moss explain his figures on the air. On occasion, he'll opine that a horse is suited or not suited for the pace of a particular race, which I usually take seriously. Sadly I also agree about Hank Goldberg. I mean, I like Hank, but the segments have become worthless. Wouldn't mind him picking losers if he provided some insightful handicapping insights on the race. Moss picked Mambo in Seattle literally as the horses were going into the gate.

Brett- The BC is in a tight spot calendar wise. and I'm not really sure what the solution is. August is too early, and then the competition gets rough as Ebersol noted. Not thrilled that the races are three days before the election either. Interesting idea about a Friday marathon....and unless there's been a rainout, Friday is a travel day for the World Series.

El Angelo said...

Great post and comments. I just want to note that the idea of night racing, while neat in theory, will probably never actually fly. Trainers are already reluctant enough about running their horses over synthetic surfaces; asking them to then have their horses run for the first time under abnormal lights during the nighttime is something most trainers will not accept.

Superfecta said...

I'm not a fan of racing in primetime - I don't watch in real time anyway (thank you, TiVo), but by prime time, I'm either not home or am putting the kid to bed. If it's not over by 5 pm, I don't get to see it until at least the next day. This is exactly why I have yet to watch the Pacific Classic...although of course all racing should be in HD.

But in general, I don't have a problem with night-time racing; it's what I grew up with at Fairmount Park and it works fine in Dubai.

Anonymous said...

Why would anyone watch these races if they didn't gamble ? Throw in the fact that having this become a 2 day festival won't work with the average player. They should have scheduled it after the election. Santa Anita could have used the shredded Obama posters to run on.

Bob From NJ

Alan Mann said...

Hi Bob -

You're on a roll I see! Are you stationed in Denver, hanging out with Rudy and Mitt at Not Ready 08 headquarters? Not sure which lobbyists you referred to in your prior comments, but I assume not the ones running McBush's campaign. And speaking of shredding, time for the Democrats to turn to the business at hand of shredding the GOP's record over the last eight disastrous years!

One of my continuing points has been to devise simple ways for people to - if not gamble on the races - have some kind of stake in the races through simple online contests. Otherwise, I agree that there's no incentive for people to watch, even if it's during the GOP convention! :)

Anonymous said...

The NASCAR model trumps the Breeders Cup model in fan interest, fan loyalty, financial success, and every other measurement worth talking about. So why do so many cling to the Breeders Cup/ Super Bowl model as the one swing, grand slam home run answer to racing's problems?

I will say again racing would be well advised to look very seriously at the NASCAR model of promoting all of the big league tracks- "The Circuit"- and all of their marquee races, big racing teams, and drivers. In horse racing promote above all the handicap circuit horses, owners, trainers, and jockeys as the way to build fan interest and loyalty on a 10 month schedule. We don't have a handicap circuit anymore thanks largely to the Breeders Cup/Super Bowl mentality.

Interesting to note that the Daytona 500, NASCAR's premier event, it's most historic event, it's KY Derby/Breeders Cup, kicks off the NASCAR season rather than ending it. Ever wonder why? Have any of the marketing geniuses at NTRA, NYRA, NBC, ESPN, ever studied NASCAR as a possible model for horse racing?

After 23 years, the Breeders Cup has proven that their model is not the answer to generating new fan interest and loyalty from committed fans. And it can't be blamed on poor TV coverage either.
I know it is a very complicated challenge thanks to wagering restrictions, multi-state regulatory overlay, and all of the other hands- tied aspects of the game but I would like to see some fresh breezes blowing- a gale would be better- before horse racing becomes just another exhibit gathering dust in the Smithsonian. /S/Green Mtn Punter

Anonymous said...

Quote: 'The Hank Goldberg handicapping infotainment bit has reached its end'

Did it ever have its start which made sense? I refuse to think there is such a dearth of talent amongst those who are wagering pros who can actually speak on camera.

Hank's ability to speak in constructive, smooth, non grimmacing statement is so lacking that he wouldn't get a midnight job on a UHF station in bottom 500 market. He isn't just bad ... he's an embarassment.

Heck over Hank's presence I'd rather have a bimbo blonde NY Lottery number calling girl read a pre-written wagering statement!

ESPN does a lot of things good but they've fallen into a rut with a standard way of doing their horse racing segements. It's ok but doesn't improve the sport.

Can any human tell me why ESPN isn't providing this level of thrilling camera shots at Saratoga? 2000 BC Classic - NBC coverage Have they even inquired? The Travers in just the last two years would've benefited with capturing the thrill to the wire.

Knowing this year was going to be 12 horses (for weeks it has been known it would be a big, open field) it was pefect for that. Once again - opportunity missed.

Instead ESPN did the lazy, same-old type of camera work. Ever think to mic a rider like Gomez? When a network doesn't become inovative in their coverage then the sport loses out.

BTW - ESPN does broadcast some races in HD but its only on their ESPN-HD channel

Anonymous said...

Please do not get rid of Hank and his empty piggy bank.

There is no better negative indicator than Hank, he ALWAYS plays a favorite, and it ALWAYS loses. The Ultimate Mush.

Nothing more useful than a favorite you can play against, just wish they published his picks earlier in the day.

Anonymous said...

As for who is ducking who, Big Brown is the horse running on the grass in a race designed for him vs. straight three years, case closed.

Anonymous said...

If the Breeders Cup was truly concerned with maximizing audience, it would be run in a fair weather site the week after the end of the regular college football season (the Army- Navy week).

But because the breeders come first, it is run against college football, NFL football and the World Series.

They are more concerned with the mating plans of the participants than the sport.

Regarding Alan's suggestion of Friday night prime time, the sun sets earlier in late October than mid August, and that particular night would be against a World Series game.

It should just be on long card to begin with, just like Derby Day.

They could even have TWO pick sixes.

El Angelo said...

A good buddy of mine works in the front office of a notable but not prominent track, and has said time and time again that the best way to get horses to show up is to simply offer money. The better the purses, the better the horses you get. This, I believe, is part of the reason why Saratoga has been a bit disappointing this year and the last couple of years; the real money isn't going towards overnight races, it's going towards NY Bred races.

But to bring this to GMP's point, that's precisely how you would build a NASCAR-style circuit racing. I haven't a clue where you would get the actual money from, but if you structured a race a month for each division with elevated purses and bonuses for races won/participated in, you would get fuller fields and repeat matchups of the best horses over and over again. That would please all of racing's current fans and perhaps actually get some national interest going again.

Alan Mann said...

>> If the Breeders Cup was truly concerned with maximizing audience, it would be run in a fair weather site the week after the end of the regular college football season (the Army- Navy week).

Good suggestion, though that would pretty much limit the potential sites to Florida (where Gulfstream in its present form is unsuitable) and California, which has its own problems as we're seeing this year.

Fair point also about the difference in sunset times between Aug and late Oct. Probably wouldn't be possible to conduct the races until ten in the east as was the case on Sunday....but you could certainly have them running until at least nine I would think, which is a whole lot better than 4 until 7. And I believe that Friday is generally a travel day for the World Series as long as there's no rain.

Anonymous said...

So correct my memory but why was it ok to run the Pacific Classic on Sunday, but it is too much of a taboo for the two-day Breeders Cup for 2009 and 2010 to be Sat/Sun? Friday viewership on ESPN, the on-track handle, et al will be a fraction of what they'd garner with a full weekend.

El Angelo said...

Big difference is the NFL. Trying to go against the NFL in October is suicide. By contrast, the Pacific Classic is in late August at a vacation spot.

Warstone said...


Don't forget that Equestrian Olympic events were also held on USA in the middle of the afternoon.

Seems like its not just us!

Anonymous said...

Alan said...

time for the Democrats to turn to the business at hand of shredding the GOP's record over the last eight disastrous years!

I agree,as a Terrorist(joke)It has been a difficult time for us.

We have been getting our as#$@% kicked all over the world.

I shore wouldn't mind going back to the 90's when things we're a lot easier on us.

So,because of these hard times I will be voting for Mr. Obama.

Maybe lower takeout can help us!

Anonymous said...

Alan why do you call your wife the head chef? Willie

Anonymous said...

The weekend of the Army/Navy game has become very crowded lately with the additions of the SEC,ACC,Big 12 Championship games.

5 years ago, that was the only game on the tube and a highlight. Not so anymore when LSU tees it up versus the Fla Gators.

Alan Mann said...

>>Alan why do you call your wife the head chef?

Willie - Besides having the last word in this household, she's a private chef and caterer.

Anonymous said...

Regarding ESPN's claim: "We intend to bring our full arsenal of resources to present, to promote and distribute the storied property as no one else can."

Pretty weak "arsenal", no?

Re: Hank Goldberg: Don't you think it would be much more entertaining to see a librarian, rather than Mr. Goldberg, make losing picks? I can sport a bun and wireframes if necessary, and apparently my winning percentage is at least as good as that of the illustrious Mr. G. And really, librarians can be nearly as funny as Jimmy Kimmel making NFL picks -- and I for one would work much, much cheaper than Goldberg or Kimmel. With all your mighty power, Alan, surely you can make this happen!