Triple Crown bid puts odds on NBC's side

Big Belmont ratings seen

Preakness figures gratify

Horse Racing

May 24, 2002|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

The chance that War Emblem will win racing's first Triple Crown in nearly a quarter of a century is expected to enliven the ratings of the Belmont Stakes for NBC, which has already attracted more viewers than ABC did.

NBC reported yesterday that its Preakness broadcast attracted an estimated 8.8 million viewers on Saturday, up 2 percent from last year, the network's first. The 2002 viewership was up 58 percent from 2000, the last of ABC's 15 years of broadcasting all three races.

"We're just tickled pink," said Joseph A. De Francis, president of Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness.

He credits much of the increase to the fact that the race was not competing with the NBA playoffs, as it did in past years when ABC broadcast the races at the same time NBC aired basketball.

"A couple of years, we were going head-to-head with Michael Jordan," he said.

With the rights to broadcast both the NBA and the Triple Crown races, NBC aired the Preakness shortly after 6 p.m., and then began its telecast of the NBA Western Conference finals game at 6:30 p.m.

Ratings for the Belmont, to be run this year on June 8, jump considerably when a horse wins both the Derby and Preakness, setting up the possibility of a Triple Crown sweep.

"Anytime you have a chance of history being made, you get pretty good viewership, " said Cameron Blanchard, director of communications for NBC Sports.

Last year's Belmont attracted 6.9 million viewers, up 60 percent over 2000. But it was well under the roughly 9 million who tuned in the last time there was a Triple Crown contender, 1999, when Charismatic failed to win.

This year's Derby audience was about 11 million, down 12 percent from the year before, but still 22 percent greater than in 2000, when viewership hit a modern low. Blanchard blamed this year's level on the lack of a strong favorite in the race.

NBC pushed the race back half an hour, to shortly after 6 p.m., when it took over the broadcasts last year, something that probably also boosted the audience, Blanchard said.

It's not clear if the good times will last. Next year, the NBA moves to ABC, where most of its games will be on affiliated cable network ESPN. The finals, which are played in late May and early June, will be telecast on ABC, though generally not on Saturdays.

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