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Sports on the air

NBC big winner in Triple Crown

By JOHN C. COTEY
Published June 4, 2004

Since getting out of the business of paying huge rights fees to broadcast major sports, NBC has made a number of smart money decisions, but maybe none more so than locking up the Triple Crown series in 2001.

NBC paid a reported $51.5-million for five years, which was more than ABC was paying for the series that at the time had faltering ratings. In ABC's final year, its ratings for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont were 5.8, 3.6 and 2.8, respectively.

Last year's numbers for NBC were 9.3, 7.7 and 10.7.

This year's numbers continue to raise the bar, with the Kentucky Derby posting a 16 percent bigger audience than last year and the Preakness a 25 percent increase.

"This is a tribute to the burgeoning popularity of Smarty Jones," said NBC Sports president Ken Schanzer.

Which brings us to the exceptional good fortune NBC has experienced. The past three years have delivered a wealth of good story lines, punctuated by three Triple Crown attempts.

As good as last year's Funny Cide story was - a bunch of buddies pitch in to buy a horse and almost win the sport's greatest jewel - the 10.7 rating for his failed attempt at the crown could be squashed Saturday.

Pretty impressive, considering that 10.7 ranked as the week's No. 1-rated show among the 122 prime-time network programs.

"I think this horse has captured the imagination of people in a way that Funny Cide never did," said producer David Michaels. "(Last year) was more the Cinderella story, but you weren't quite sure if he was really going to become the prince or the king. Whereas Smarty Jones is a for-real horse on the road to greatness.

"This is a dream come true. It's put horse racing back on the map. When regular old sports fans are talking about horse racing, something extraordinary is happening."

With the exception of football, it's difficult to recall a network getting the rights to a sport and finding such good fortune.

Three straight Triple Crown attempts?

"There is nothing in the entire world of sports that is more intense than a Triple Crown attempt," said Tom Durkin, who has called the failed Triple Crown attempts of Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2002) and Funny Cide.

"Smarty Jones is running against the burden of history - not his opponents on the track."

NBC is happy to be along for the ride.

[Last modified June 3, 2004, 23:59:12]


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