Sunday, June 17, 2018
Thinking About Preakness Stakes Viewers

We've learned by now not to ask how big the Super Bowl can get. Maybe it's time to think of the Kentucky Derby in the same way. We've all heard that the Kentucky Derby drew a TV audience of 16.2 million. That's a pretty solid number and everyone from Churchill Downs, Inc. to NBC is rightfully pleased. The network eagerly announced this ratings hit with all the fanfare you would expect. The person who penned this press release was in such a rush that they unintentionally gave Grindstone a touch of Shakespearean flair -- Grindestone. 'Tis but a little mistake.

searchintkdHere's some data from Google Trends that maybe you haven't seen. It's a metric for web search interest over time for the term "Kentucky Derby". I don't know if Google has changed their algorithms in the last year but if not, wow. You would have to agree that everything NBC and the racing industry have thrown at hyping up the Kentucky Derby has paid off. It's a giant, blown-up event on the calendar. And near the end of hours of TV coverage there is most definitely a horse race, so it's still a sports event too, among many other things.

But now the Preakness Stakes is up next in just a few days and this is where the TV side gets tricky. It gets tricky because a big chunk of those 16.2 million Derby viewers aren't going to watch the Preakness. seinfeld_wrongViewership statistics for the Triple Crown races are customarily compared year over year. That's fine. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's my contention though that a more strategic way to look at viewership is "intra-year". When Triple Crown viewership is examined intra-year instead of inter-year, the biggest problem facing Thoroughbred racing (and NBC) becomes quite clear. It's the frustrating drop-off of viewership from the Kentucky Derby to the Preakness.

Let's take a closer look at the numbers, or at least the numbers I could find. This is a scatter plot with Kentucky Derby viewership along the x-axis (horizontal) and Preakness viewership along the y-axis (vertical). You'll probably need to click on the plots in this post to see them in proper detail. Sure, the individual data points could be labeled with calendar year instead of the name of that year's Kentucky Derby winner. But this way is more illustrative and makes it far easier for Thoroughbred racing fans to mentally consume the information.
There's plenty to be said about this plot right out of the gate. First and foremost, these data are not wild and untamed. They are in fact rather well-behaved. By that I mean they show a clear positive linear relationship. The more viewers the Kentucky Derby attracts, the more viewers the Preakness Stakes attracts. However, Preakness viewership is always less than the Derby, to the tune of many millions.

Compared with recent NBC coverage, Derby viewership was languishing on ABC in the early 1990s. Although, to be fair, the 1989 Kentucky Derby on ABC drew 18.5 million viewers. But I was unable to find a Preakness figure for that year so was forced to exclude it. The Triple Crown in 1989 featured the popular and historic rivalry between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, so it's probably a safe assumption that viewership was very high across all three races.

What's that diagonal line in the plot? That's equality. That's a much coveted but fictional space where Kentucky Derby and Preakness viewership are equivalent. We'll talk more about that later.

Back to our well-behaved data. We already visually noted a strong positive relationship. Fans of the Pearson correlation coefficient will be happy to learn the relationship between x (Derby viewership) and y (Preakness viewership) is healthy (r  = 0.81). I know, I know... the temptation to grab a pencil and draw a straight line through the data points is overwhelming. You've probably already done so. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

But around here we like to unleash the kind of rigorous quantitative power that makes grown men weep. So let's draw that straight line through the data by way of a simple linear regression, using Kentucky Derby viewership as our predictor variable. There it is in blue, and it's spectacular.
Well, it looks pretty good anyway. Super Saver is a bit of an outlier since his Derby viewership was twice that of his Preakness. And the popular trio of Smarty Jones, Funny Cide and Barbaro each pulled in more Preakness viewers than one might have expected.

If you're scoring at home our little regression model has respectable explanatory power (r2 = 0.65). In other words, 65% of the variance in Preakness viewership over this time period can be explained by Kentucky Derby viewership alone.

We already know that 16.2 million viewers watched Orb power home. So all we need to do is plot a point on the regression line that lines up with 16.2 on the x-axis. There we go. This is our predicted value for Preakness Stakes viewership on Saturday -- 10.4 million.

How do you like 10.4 million? Is there a compelling reason to use our human judgment and adjust that number up or down? I can't think of one. In recent history drawing above 10 million Preakness viewers is a rather exclusive club. Orb would join Smarty Jones, Barbaro and the Rachel Alexandra-infused Mine That Bird in this fancy-pants clubhouse. I'm in with 10.4 million. It's what the data are telling us. Cue the press release... 28% increase in viewership over 2012, etc.
No one is going to be upset if the actual number of Preakness viewers comes back in the neighborhood of 10.4 million. But why must we settle for a number far below the 16.2 million Derby viewers? I'm sure NBC has viewer research that provides some clues as to why so many Derby viewers check out. Now that NBC is the exclusive home of Thoroughbred racing, their interest in growing the fanbase is obviously vested.

If the televised Triple Crown series is to be the main pipeline for new Thoroughbred racing fans and horseplayers, it's vitally important to maximize exposure on these three Saturdays. Why not dream of plotting future data points near the diagonal line? There's enough smart men and women in racing and at NBC to figure this out. The old saying, "In the long run, you only hit what you aim at" comes to mind.

Who knows, maybe this is the year that the entire viewership dynamic changes. Why would that be? What is new and different? Well, Michelle Beadle is new and different, or at least she is to horse racing. NBC brought her on as a new face in the Derby coverage this year. She evidently ruffled a few feathers while doing her job, which was basically being herself. Not the feathers in the NBC peacock, those feathers were happy. Rather the feathers in the Derby hats of some racing fans who want their Derby telecast served up in only one way.

Michelle introduced herself as a horse racing newbie who is here to try to figure out "What is going on here?" Pretty good idea in my opinion. And she's funny, likable, energetic and pretty. I have to imagine that more than a few casual viewers appreciated her role. She has a sizable following too in the sports world. Let's see if she can lead some of them to horse racing.

But here's something kind of important that Michelle (or anyone else) didn't explain. The Kentucky Derby was never placed in context. It's hard to believe but as far as I can tell the word "Baltimore" or "Preakness" was not uttered until the 2:57 mark of a three-hour telecast. Somewhere along the way Bob Costas might have made a passing reference to the "Triple Crown" when talking about Secretariat. In contrast the term "Kentucky Derby" was uttered 7,000 times and also flashed subliminally across the screen for three hours. The point is, if you are a complete newbie you came away with no understanding of what's next and little encouragement to come back for more, except for next year's Kentucky Derby.

searchintkdhrRemember that Google Trends chart on search interest we opened the article with? Let's look at the same chart with the addition of the term "horse racing" in red. The Kentucky Derby on TV will always be a way some Thoroughbred racing fans and horseplayers discover the game. But the question comes to mind, "Is racing (and NBC) simply creating Kentucky Derby fans when it should be trying to create horse racing fans?" Unless more viewers are drawn into the narrative of the Triple Crown, the answer is probably "yes".