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When the horses trot out to begin the 135th annual Kentucky Derby on May 2, racing enthusiasts will fixate on whether I Want Revenge, this year's favorite, will be able to outlast the field. But executives at Churchill Downs (CHDN), the company behind the Derby, and NBC (GE), which is airing the event for the ninth straight year, will already have done their best to drive more new viewers to the race's starting gate.
The Kentucky Derby has long been the most popular horse race in the U.S., with some 150,000 attending in person and 14 million tuning in from home. But once the Derby is over, horse racing will go back to being a niche sport popular primarily among older male gamblers. NBC and Churchill Downs want to broaden the Derby's appeal and the key, they believe, is attracting more women. Women already make up more than half of the Derby's audience—making the Derby the only sporting event beside the Winter and Summer Olympic Games that attract more female viewers than men.
"Women have played a huge part in making the Derby the spectacle that it is, but from a marketing standpoint we've underserved our female demographic," says David Tomkins, Churchill Downs' chief marketing officer. "There's a lot more focus this year in reaching out to women."
The two companies are coming up with ways they hope will make the venerable race even more appealing to a female audience, including everything from women in Derby magazine ads to including cooking segments and an extended red carpet show featuring the Derby's distinctive dresses and hats during the race broadcast.
The focus on women is part of Churchill Downs' attempt to freshen the image of horse racing and extend its popularity to groups beyond aging male bettors. While the Kentucky Derby's popularity continues to grow, thoroughbred racing throughout the rest of the year has failed to keep pace with other sports. Many tracks now rely on revenue from slot machines to prop them up. Earnings from Churchill Downs' horse-racing operations fell 16% in 2008, according to Stephen Altebrando, an analyst at New York-based Sidoti & Co.
In 2007, NBC and Churchill Downs incorporated the first red carpet show, adding Access Hollywood's Billy Bush as a host in 2008. This year the red carpet segment will be back and even more prominent. The Derby's TV viewership has risen steadily, from 12.9 million in 2006 to 14.2 million last year.
In addition to the two-minute-long horse race, the three-hour broadcast will focus on food, fashion, and celebrities. Access Hollywood's Nancy O'Dell and former football player Tiki Barber will conduct interviews on the red carpet. Segments will look at famous parties surrounding the race. In the infield, chefs from Bravo Network's Top Chef show will cook up snacks.
"We're promoting it to an audience who would look at the Derby more as a spectacle than as a sporting event," says Mike McCarley, senior vice-president for marketing at NBC Sports.
On-air promotions are running on NBC programs with sizable female audiences. NBC is promoting the race every day this week on the Today show. The celebrity news show Access Hollywood and the Web site iVillage will also promote the race. On May 1, the night before the race, NBC-owned Bravo will run a special called Ladies First: Bravo at the Kentucky Derby that will include the running of the Kentucky Oaks, a fillies-only race held earlier in the day. The race will be held in partnership with breast cancer nonprofit Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
Helm is marketing editor for BusinessWeek in New York .