Full House at Churchill Downs Should Boost Kentucky Derby Ratings

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With more than 150,000 fans expected to show up to Churchill Downs on Saturday for the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby, NBC may expect to see a concomitant uptick in deliveries for its broadcast of the race.

Speaking to investors last week during Churchill Downs’ first-quarter earnings call, CEO William Carstanjen said all signs point to a massive turnout at the track, which in accordance with federal and state guidelines, has dropped masking requirements. “Based on advanced reserved ticket sales, we expect to deliver record Derby results,” Carstanjen said. “It’s been really great to see the Derby festivities return to their traditional frenzy. … The energy and excitement is back.”

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Churchill Downs set the standing attendance record in 2015, when 170,513 fans filed into the twin-spired landmark to watch American Pharoah win the opening leg of what turned out to be the first successful Triple Crown bid in 37 years. NBC’s broadcast of the race peaked at 17.9 million viewers as American Pharoah crossed the finish line.

Derby attendance in 2021 was limited to around one-third of the track’s regular capacity, as 51,838 spectators were on hand for Medina Spirit’s half-length win over Mandaloun. The colt was retroactively disqualified after he tested positive for a banned corticosteroid used to reduce joint pain. Trainer Bob Baffert, who also handled American Pharoah and the 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify, was banned from all Churchill Downs properties for two years. Medina Spirit died in December.

As much as Baffert will be conspicuous by his absence, the trainer’s suspension is unlikely to have a material impact on NBC’s Derby deliveries. Nor should it change the dynamics of the actual race. As NBC Sports analyst Jerry Bailey observed earlier this week during a pre-Derby press call, “I don’t think the horses are going to realize there’s a difference at all.”

Per Nielsen, 14.5 million viewers watched last year’s Derby, a figure that includes approximately 140,000 streaming impressions. NBC’s deliveries grew 56% versus the asterisk-laden 2020 race, which was run in September of that same year. The official attendance figure for the COVID-delayed event: 0.

If the 2021 Derby was more in keeping with what NBC delivered during the pre-pandemic era—since picking up the rights to the race in 2001, the network’s broadcasts have averaged 14.7 million viewers—the return of the funny-hats-and-mint-juleps spectacle could give Saturday’s deliveries an extra boost. As has been apparent throughout sports’ ongoing recovery effort, the number of fannies in the seats tends to coincide with gains on the TV side.

NBC Sports’ Mike Tirico earlier this week said that while it was great to have spectators on hand for last year’s race, the prospect of a full house this time around should make for a far more compelling broadcast. “It was great to see that many people [in 2021],” Tirico said during the NBC presser. “But then I look back to the 2019 and 2018, and the place is jammed and the colors and the people and everything about it. I think it’s very additive to the energy of the day to have the constant buzz of fans right around you.

“This will be probably as large a gathering in American sports as we’ve had since the pandemic, only to be topped at the end of the month by the 500 in Indianapolis,” Tirico added. “I think the energy of being back amongst that larger group of fans will come through for all of us in our broadcast and our presentation.”

A stable of first-time sponsors will greet the tens of thousands of fans who pass through the turnstiles; among the newcomers partnering with Churchill Downs are BMW, Red Bull and FTD. The latter brand should be particularly well-served, as Sunday is Mother’s Day. Woodford Reserve is the Derby’s presenting partner, and a true-bluegrass endemic, given the precedence bourbon holds among the elements that make up the race’s signature quaff.

In what amounts to a rare missed opportunity for Churchill Downs, no purveyors of foul-weather gear have inked a sponsorship deal with the track. Rain has fallen on every Derby going back to 2016, with track conditions ranging from “muddy” to “quagmire.” Louisville once again could be in for a spell of sloppy weather, as the Saturday forecast calls for chilly and wet conditions through the afternoon.

NBC’s coverage of the 148th Kentucky Derby begins at 2:30 p.m. EDT. Post time for the main race is 6:57 p.m.

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