Johnny Weir Isn’t the Problem

LOUISVILLE, KY - MAY 02: Johnny Weir attends the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 2, 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Churchill Downs)

Johnny Weir at the 2015 Kentucky Derby (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Churchill Downs).

For years I heard that horse racing needed a Triple Crown winner to “save” it. Exactly what was threatening the game, I was never quite sure of, but I assume the angst had to do with thoroughbred racing’s apparent fall from grace.

After all, at one time, it was the top spectator sport in America — a fact we get reminded of on a near-daily basis by those continually tolling racing’s funeral bell.

Hence, when American Pharoah completed his Triple Crown quest last year, I was euphoric. In fact, after the Belmont, friends had to stop me from running down the street naked proclaiming my joy… although that might have been due to the fact that I did the same thing on New Year’s Eve and it ended badly.

So, imagine my dismay upon learning that the Kentucky Derby ratings were down this year — by 3.1 percent. According to NBC, which broadcast the race, the 142nd Run for the Roses drew 15.5 million viewers, compared to 16 million last year.

I’ll be honest: I was so depressed when I saw this that I was half-tempted to run down the street naked yelling obscenities… but, again, memories of New Year’s Eve restrained me.

This, coupled with a recent report from Equibase showing that handle was up by 1.2 percent in 2015 despite the fact that purses and total races were down, lead me to believe that racetrack marketers still don’t get it — and neither do many fans.

Among the comments I read in regard to the drooping Derby ratings were the following:

“I want horsemen on there talking horses … Not ice skaters dressed up like Alice in Wonderland.”
“I know we kept muting the sound because of Johnny Weir. He brings NOTHING to the broadcast.”
“I am ready for a broadcast change. Less fluff more about the races.”
“Yeah as soon as I saw Weir was back I changed the station until the actual race was about to go off.”

Sensing a trend here?

Look, I’m not a fan of Johnny Weir either; having him on the broadcast makes about as much sense as having Joan Rivers on “The NFL Today” (which would be especially awkward now, given that Rivers passed away in 2014).

Kentucky Derby Ratings

(From Sports TV Ratings)

But let’s remember what it was like in the “glory years,” when every broadcast focused almost entirely on the horses and the personalities making up the Sport of Kings. For the final Kentucky Derby airing on ABC in 2000, the hosts were Al Michaels and Jim McKay; the analysts were Dave Johnson and “Sweatin’” Hank Goldberg; and the reporters were Charlsie Cantey, Lesley Visser and Robin Roberts.

By any standard, that’s a pretty impressive lineup of talent… yet just 9.1 million people tuned in that year, continuing a ratings decline so severe that even Peyton Manning feels ABC stayed in the game one year too long (actually, I have no idea if that’s true — I’m just guessing).

From 1989 to 2000, viewership on the Derby fell by over 50 percent and it was clear that a new direction was needed. Early on, NBC felt that presenting the Run for the Roses as a cultural event rather than a sporting event was the way to go — and it’s hard to argue with the results.

In NBC’s very first year of broadcasting the Greatest Two Minutes In Sports, viewership increased by 48 percent. Granted, some of that increase was due to the rescheduling of NBA playoff games (which NBC also holds the rights to) so as not to conflict with the running of America’s premier horse race, but even NBC executives only expected a 15-20 percent bump from this move.

No, my friends, Johnny Weir is not the problem.

The problem is what is has always been — as a sport, racing simply can’t compete anymore. In addition to an aging fan base that often makes Dana Carvey’s “Grumpy Old Man” character appear downright gregarious, there is way too much time devoted to way too little action.

Then, instead of studio hosts with a sense of humor and good rapport like we see on the NFL and NBA pregame shows, we get mostly wooden dialogue and debates with about as much levity as two guys discussing their latest prostate exams.

While I think it is possible to effectively market the Sport of Kings somewhere in between Weir and a medical exam, I think it would be a mistake to pay heed to those seeking to keep the focus entirely on the horses, jockeys and trainers. Again, that’s been tried.

TLC

(From TLC)

American Pharoah’s “historic” Grand Slam drew record ratings for NBC. The Breeders’ Cup telecast from 5:07-6:13 p.m. ET on Oct. 31, 2015, earned a 2.6/6 household rating — the highest since 1995 when the great Cigar was the headliner.

This translates to about 3.9 million viewers.

To put that number into perspective, consider that “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” averaged a shade over 2.3 million viewers in its inaugural season — and that was a cable show… about farts, bad eating habits and other such high-brow topics.

Hey, that gives me an idea: Maybe instead of Weir, Honey Boo Boo can be on the next Derby broadcast.

Derek Simon
Derek Simon is the Senior Editor and Handicapper at US Racing.
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