The once promising relationship between ESPN and Horse Racing appears to be on the skids with ESPN cutting its Kentucky Derby Week Coverage from 11 hours in 2008 to 5 hours this year. The Kentucky Oaks will be a victim of the ESPN cuts, as they will not show the race on the Friday before the Derby. The Bravo Network, owned by NBC Universal, will pick up the Oaks Coverage as part of a one hour special. Last year ESPN had 3 hours of coverage on Oaks Day.
My initial reaction is that once again the horse racing fan gets shafted. However, I can't say I blame ESPN from the business side of the table. Although the Kentucky Derby itself draws impressive numbers, averaging an hefty 8.7 household rating share since NBC picked up the coverage in 2001, every other Horse Racing event draws anemic ratings.
This past Breeders Cup drew only a 1.0 share on the ABC portion of the Saturday 2008 coverage and "Filly Friday" on ESPN drew a very weak 0.3 on ESPN. I don't have last years Oaks ratings available to me but based on typical cable ratings I would figure it would also be about in the 0.3 range that the Breeders Cup had on ESPN on during the 2008 Friday coverage.
Looks like ESPN took a look at the ratings and just decided to go elsewhere, pushing other programs and sports that simply draw in better ratings and ultimately better ad rates. For instance, the ESPN coverage of the World Baseball Classic, is off to a strong start, with first-round game coverage on ESPN (four telecasts) averaging a 1.3 rating (up 44 percent from the original classic first broadcast in 2006). With an international audience for the World Baseball Classic, ESPN is smartly building its ESPN Deportes Cable Channel and ESPN360.com website.
Cuba vs. Australia on Tuesday, March 10, delivered a 3.3 rating on ESPN Desportes to become the network’s highest-rated non-soccer event ever.
The ESPN360.com is streaming World Baseball Classic games and traffic is way up with an average viewer time of 41 minutes per stream for Classic games.
It's all about drawing eyeballs to the screen and ESPN appears to have lost interest in using Horse Racing to do that.
SOURCES: Neilsen Media Research