NBC’s Lazarus: An American Pharoah Triple Crown Would Elevate Horse Racing

Count Mark Lazarus among the many rooting for horseracing’s 37-year Triple Crown drought to end on Saturday at Belmont Park. The NBC Sports Group chairman says he’s “very excited about American Pharoah. We do want it to happen.”

A victory in the mile-and-half race would be a crowning moment of the programmer’s championship weekend, which includes Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, coverage of the French Open women’s and men’s finals, its fourth PBC on NBC boxing card, and some 40 hours of motorsports coverage.

Lazarus says that, with other horses — California Chrome last year and I’ll Have Another in 2012 —having come close to supplanting Affirmed (1978) as the last thoroughbred to join the select group of Triple Crown winners, “Americans are a little more conscious” about the quest.

He believes that, if American Pharoah wins, “it will elevate and add excitement to the sport overall.”

He hopes so. NBC Sports Group and New York Racing Association on June 3 reached a five-year renewal through 2020 for the Belmont Stakes with options for two more years. The package — which also includes rights to the Belmont Oaks, the Wood Memorial, various races from Saratoga, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup — keeps two legs of the Triple Crown (it has rights to the Kentucky Derby through 2025) in its stable.

Lazarus says there are ”active negotiations” with the Stronach Group for a new deal for the Preakness: ”We think it’s very important to keep the Triple Crown races together.”

Asked whether an American Pharoah win on Saturday would dampen future Triple Crown enthusiasm, Lazarus quickly harnesses the notion: ”Maybe it happens again. Hope springs eternal.”

California Chrome’s failed run at last year’s Belmont garnered 20.5 million viewers for NBC, the most for the race since Smarty Jones’s bid in 2004 drew 21.9 million.

At the time Lazarus plans to make his way to Belmont Park on Saturday afternoon, the fourth card on PBC on NBC will air. “Al [Haymon, who heads Premier Boxing Champions,] is doing what he said he would: getting good fighters to fight and build name recognition,” notes Lazarus

Indeed, Adrien Broner and Robert Guerrero, who were on NBC’s first PBC card on March 7, will step into the ring on Saturday. “The idea is for viewers to get to know these guys,” says Lazarus. “We have had some good ratings, and the other networks are experiencing the same. We want this to work.”

Strong Stanley Cup Start
Although he won’t be at Amalie Center when the Tampa Bay Lightning hosts the Chicago Blackhawks in the second game of the Stanley Cup Final, the lead-out from the Belmont, Lazarus will be in the Windy City’s United Center on Monday night for the third contest.

The June 3 opener on NBC averaged a 3.34 household rating and nearly 5.55 million viewers, up 16% from last year’s Los Angeles Kings-New York Rangers clash (4.79 million). The telecast stands as the most-watched non-OT Game 1 in 18 years and second-most-watched ever.

“It’s a great start,” says Lazarus, and it continues Nielsen momentum from the later Conference Finals games. With the defending champion Kings and Boston Bruins failing to make the tournament and 2015 NHL brackets including five Canadian teams, Lazarus says the recent performances ”help make up for playoffs that had some teams that don’t have big followings in the U.S.”

Does he lament that the Rangers failed to return to the Stanley Cup Final and meet the Blackhawks? ”It would have been the top two markets and two original six teams. Given the sheer size of the New York versus Tampa [its the 13th-ranked market], you lose some viewers.”

Still, Lazarus notes that ”Tampa is very excited about its team,” pointing to the 17.9 metered mark during the Lightning’s 2-1 loss, while Chicago posted a 28.0 ”If it’s a long series, we expect we’ll have positive ratings.”

French and Futbol
The weekend could also see major achievements on the red clay at Roland Garros in Paris. Serena Williams is the favorite to capture her third French Open title and 20th major title overall, and Novak Djokovic, who ended Rafael Nadal’s five-year run as champion in the quarters, would complete a career Grand Slam if he prevails.

“It’s nice to see such great players. Paris is a beautiful city, and Roland Garros is an iconic venue,” says Lazarus. ”It’s a major and has been part of our championship season for a long time.”

Thirty-three years, in fact. The French Open is now NBC Sports’ sole tennis property, following the loss of Wimbledon to ESPN. ”That’s one of the things we would have liked to change over the last few years,” Lazarus laments. “We didn’t want to part with Wimbledon.”

As for another UK property, Lazarus says there haven’t been any active discussions for a renewal of Premier League rights, but he expects the dialog to begin later this summer.

During its second year with the UK’s top soccer circuit, NBC Sports netted a 9% audience advance, which Lazarus notes came on a “nearly doubling from the prior year.”

NBCSN and NBC combined to average a record 479,000, up from 438,000 in its rookie campaign and 118% more than 220,000 combined average in 2012-13 on Fox Soccer, ESPN, and ESPN2.

“Growth like that is hard to come by,” he says. “We’ve done a good job with the Premier League, and it has been good for us.”

Gearing Up for NASCAR
The weekend also features more than 40 hours of motorsports, including live coverage of the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship Tennessee National on NBC at 2 p.m. on Saturday, followed by the IndyCar Firestone 600 at 8 p.m. on NBCSN as the final eight races of the Verizon IndyCar Series rev on the cable network. On Sunday at 2 p.m., NBC is on Formula One footing, with the Canadian Grand Prix.

Lazarus says NBC Sports Group holds the ”dominant position with motorsports in this country,” one that will be augmented with NASCAR’s return on Independence Day weekend when Xfinity Series bows on July 4 and the Sprint Cup debuts the next day.

“Formula One is doing well, and IndyCar is coming on. We’re excited about NASCAR. We will crown all three champions,” he says, noting that, although there is some overlap, each circuit has its own audiences.

Under its new, 10-year contract, NBC Sports will pick up the pace from Fox, which has bumped into some meteorological issues that have impacted some of its ratings. ”We agreed that all the bad weather is in the first half of the season, and there won’t be any more rain the rest of the way,” Lazarus jokes, before turning serious and adding that Fox has had ”some ups and downs largely due to some interesting weather patterns.”

He adds that, when he was having conversations last year with NASCAR, he felt that it might have been better to introduce the Chase for the Sprint Cup and its fresh elimination format when the new TV contract begins. “I think now that I was wrong about that. There is good understanding and acceptance of the new format, and I think we’ll be the beneficiary. We’re optimistic we’re coming up on the right part of the season.”

Ad sales, he says, are ”coming along. There is a ton of activity. I think we’re on track.”

Under the previous setup, there were “three networks on Sunday and different partners on Saturdays,” Lazarus explains, noting ”education was needed in marketplace. There’s more continuity now. We’re getting there.”

Live Links
With Fox Sports securing a long-term deal with USGA, the U.S. Open is no longer part of NBC Sports’ championship-season portfolio.

Lazarus is philosophical here. ”I’ll be able to spend Father’s Day with my kids for the first time in four years,” he says, with a laugh. “We’re going to miss it on NBC. It’s a great property that long had been at the center of NBC’s golf schedule. We’ll still have news coverage on Golf Channel.”

The broadcast network and cable channel, though, are adding a championship event to their bag, the KPMG Women’s Championship. The new major, the result of the PGA of America and KPMG joining forces with the LPGA Tour, tees off from Westchester Country Club in Harrison, NY, June 11-14, underscores NBC Sports Group’s commitment to the women’s game, Lazarus says. Whereas the predecessor event, LPGA Championship, aired solely on Golf, the new tournament will benefit from Saturday and Sunday action on NBC. The cable network’s Golf Central news show will cover the KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit, featuring keynotes by Condoleeza Rice and Duke Energy President/CEO Lynn Good on June 10.

The new major follows Golf Channel’s first turn in showcasing both the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Golf Championships in back-to-back weeks at Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, FL, May 22-June 3.

“The event did well,” Lazarus reports. ”It helped fill a weekday void, giving us a live schedule on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.”

Along with the NCAA tournament and the Ladies European Tour’s move of the Turkish Airlines Ladies Open to a Monday-Wednesday May 18-20, Golf will conclude a 25-day run of live tournament coverage with its presentation of the Memorial and other events on Sunday.

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