May 20, 2020 9:46 AM

Networks have strong showing during busy sports weekend

Posted May 20, 2020 9:46 AM

Fans who had been starving for live sporting events had their appetites somewhat sated last weekend.

Network executives knew the first weekend with multiple live events would draw good numbers but for the most part they exceeded expectations. The Bundesliga’s return drew record numbers on Fox Sports 1, Saturday night’s UFC card on ESPN was one of the top shows on cable television and Sunday’s NASCAR race on Fox was the most-viewed non-Daytona race in three years.

“It was fun being able to watch everything and not knowing what was going to happen. The good thing is people can see a little bit of the pieces of the sports world being able to restart,” said NBC’s Mike Tirico, who called Sunday’s TaylorMade Driving Relief exhibition match.

ESPN dominated the weekend. According to Nielsen, the network won Sunday night’s cable ratings with the final two episodes of “The Last Dance,” while Saturday’s UFC Fight Night card was the third-most viewed program on cable, averaging 1.20 million. Saturday’s card was the eighth-most viewed UFC telecast on an ESPN network since the network started airing bouts last January.

It was also the second-most viewed ESPN Fight Night. The record remains 1.5 million for the first card aired last February.

Bundesliga games on Fox Sports 1 posted their best numbers on the network since it began airing the German professional soccer league in 2015. The Bundesliga is the first of Europe’s first-division soccer leagues to resume play.

Saturday’s matches averaged 365,000 viewers while Sunday’s games, which featured seven-time champion Bayern Munich, averaged 361,000. Fox Sports Senior Vice President Michael Mulvihill said that is a 725% increase over the last Bundesliga match on FS1 prior to the shutdown.

It is also only the second weekend this season that Bundesliga matches were viewed by over 100,000 fans on Fox Sports 1.

“What we’ve seen over the last six weeks is that any time a fan has been given the opportunity to show how much they miss live sports, they have. The appetite is extremely strong,” Mulvihill said.

Fox’s strong weekend continued with the NASCAR race at Darlington, South Carolina, averaging 6.32 million. It was the most-watched race outside of the Daytona 500 since the March 2017 race in Atlanta.

Having a late afternoon East Coast window and shelter-in-place measures still in place led to audience increases over 100% in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia.

NASCAR could continue to see big audiences over the next two weeks. The race Wednesday night at Darlington will be on FS1 and Sunday’s race at Charlotte will be the first big sporting event to take place on its regularly scheduled date in over two months.

“We’re optimistic to see what the numbers will be over the next couple weeks. It might be six or more weeks where NASCAR has the stage to itself,” Mulvihill said.

What encourages Mulvihill even more is that Fox’s NASCAR ratings are down only 2% from last year.

NBC Sports Group said TaylorMade Driving Relief on Sunday averaged 2.35 million viewers across all platforms, which included NBC, Golf Channel and NBCSN as well as the network and PGA Tour’s streaming apps. The network said the broadcast was on par with final-round events on CBS (2.32M) and NBC (2.35M) aired last spring.

Tirico said the highlight for him was seeing the golfers in shorts and carrying their own clubs as the team of Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson defeated Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff.

The golf and NASCAR broadcasts also showed what challenges could lie ahead for network crews over the next couple of months. Tirico anchored the golf coverage from his home in Michigan, while Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon called the NASCAR race from Charlotte. NBC had a pair of on-course reporters while Fox had only one pit reporter at Darlington.

With announcers spread out over the country, the first hour of broadcasts can be challenging.

“The TV viewer is going to understand delays and glitches. We learned a lot, though, which should help over the next couple months,” Tirico said.

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May 20, 2020 9:46 AM
Belmont set for June 20 without fans, leads off Triple Crown

Horse racing’s Triple Crown will look different this year from start to finish.

The Belmont Stakes will be run before the Kentucky Derby and Preakness for the first time and take place at a shorter distance. It will lead off the Triple Crown on June 20 in New York with no fans in attendance and at a distance of 1 1/8 miles instead of the 1 1/2-mile “test of the champion” that has been the race’s trademark for nearly a century.

“The way it fits in the calendar, it’s a completely different race than the traditional Belmont would be,” New York Racing Association president and CEO Dave O’Rourke said Tuesday. “I think we’re going to have a big field. I think it’ll be a really competitive field. I think the dynamics of the race are different.”

The three Triple Crown races will be run out of their traditional order for the first time since 1931. The Kentucky Derby was moved from May 2 to Sept. 5 and the Preakness from May 16 to Oct. 3 amid the coronavirus pandemic that has upended the sports calendar.

“I’m just happy we get to run,” two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert said. “I’m just fortunate that they didn’t cancel any of them. A couple months ago, it didn’t look good.”

An out-of-order Triple Crown presents another set of challenges and would be a different kind of accomplishment than the one competed by the 13 past champions. The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont are usually run during a five-week span in the spring, and 3-year-olds are more mature by the summer and fall.

“It’s going to help some, it’s going to hurt others,” trainer Mark Casse said. “You’re going to see a lot stronger, probably a bigger, stronger horse from May.”

The Belmont is only being run two weeks after it was scheduled, but the shorter distance changes the complexion of the race and the Triple Crown. It has been run at 1 1/2 miles each year dating to 1926 and last ran at 1 1/8 miles in 1894.

It’s not the same going before the Kentucky Derby.

“The Belmont, running after that, the ‘test of champions’ is: ‘How tough is your horse? How can he handle it?’” said Baffert, who trained 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and 2018 winner Justify. “Now, a mile and a half, they can handle it easier the first time. It wouldn’t be as difficult as it would be after running those other two races.

Barclay Tagg would have been fine with running top contender Tiz the Law at 1 1/2 miles, and Baffert plans for elite 3-year-olds Nadal and Charlatan to go to the Belmont.

NYRA officials said in a release that the distance adjustment was made “to properly account for the schedule adjustments to the Triple Crown series and overall calendar for 3-year-olds in training.” O’Rourke said there wasn’t much debate about shortening the race, and all comers are welcome.

“You wouldn’t get that many horses going a mile and a half right now,” Baffert said. “We would’ve gone a mile and a quarter, mile and a half. I don’t care what the distance was. We’re going to be there.”

The Belmont was originally scheduled for June 6. But racing in New York was halted in late March after a backstretch worker tested positive for COVID-19, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn’t give the green light to resume until Saturday.

O’Rourke said NYRA had been in touch with the Stronach Group that owns Pimlico Race Course since the Kentucky Derby was rescheduled so they could coordinate the timing of the Preakness and Belmont. With little desire for squeezing in the Belmont in October before the Breeders’ Cup Nov. 6-7, the focus was on June or July while awaiting government approval.

“We didn’t have dates for a while. Every day seemed like a week,” O’Rourke said. “As long as we were able to start at Belmont the first week of June, we thought we could hold to this June 20 date with a different race in a sense of distance and whatnot.”

Live racing is gradually ramping up operations across North America because tracks feel they can operate safely and still make money without fans on site because of online betting and TV revenue. More than $90 million was wagered off track last year on Belmont day, and NYRA gets a cut of that money along with revenue from NBC.

Racing will return to Belmont Park in Elmont, New York, on June 3 and go through July 12. The Belmont will be the highlight of that meet, even with the purse reduced from $1.5 million to $1 million as a result of the pandemic-related closures of racetracks and casinos in New York.

The race will also offer Kentucky Derby qualifying points instead of being the culmination of the Triple Crown that has been won by just 13 horses. Doing so will be a different kind of challenge this year, and Baffert hopes to build up his horses to still take a Run for the Roses in September with the Belmont in the leadoff spot.

“I think they’re going to be more competitive with that spaced-out time,” Baffert said. “At the end of the day, the end game is the Kentucky Derby. That Sept. 5 date is what we’re all shooting for.”