Despite NBC Promo Blitz, Kentucky Derby Ratings Slip

Weak field detracts from strong cross-platform coverage

NBC’s multiplatform promotion of its Kentucky Derby coverage didn’t move the needle quite as much as one might have anticipated, as Saturday’s broadcast fell 12 percent from the year-ago race.

The network's presentation of the 137th Run for the Roses delivered 14.5 million total viewers, and while that was good enough to make it the fourth most-watched Derby in 21 years, it also served up 2 million fewer fans than the 2010 race.

Despite NBC’s dogged efforts to hype the Derby across its sibling cable channels, a lackluster field of long shots may have tempered the enthusiasm of casual viewers. Churchill Downs favorite Uncle Mo (4:1) was scratched the day before the race, leaving a field of curiosities like Mucho Macho Man (12:1), Pants on Fire (20:1), and eventual winner Animal Kingdom, who posted opening odds of 30:1. (At post time, the two-year-old colt was set to run at 20:1.)

While the 12 percent decline may have been something of a disappointment, those 14.5 million viewers will almost certainly mark NBC’s biggest delivery of the second quarter, beating out new hit The Voice (12.6 million viewers, May 3) and eclipsing The Apprentice (8.8 million viewers, season to date).

It’s also worth noting that the 2010 Derby was the most-watched since 1989 when doomed colt Sunday Silence won the garland of roses in front of a TV audience of 18.5 million viewers.

The Derby is the only major annual sporting event that draws more female viewers than male. Based on Nielsen data, 51 percent of Saturday’s audience was comprised of women 18+.

When NBC renewed its Derby rights package in October, it plunked down $25 million, or $5 million per year through 2015. The negotiated price was approximately 18 percent lower than the previous rate of $6 million per year.

In February, NBC inked a deal that returned the Belmont Stakes to its stable. With the June 11 race in hand, NBC now owns the rights to all three legs of the Triple Crown.

NBC’s Triple Crown coverage resumes Saturday, May 21, with the Preakness Stakes. Animal Kingdom will take the next step toward becoming the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 33 years, a feat that was last achieved by Affirmed in 1978.