The 147th Kentucky Derby marked a return to form for both the race and host network NBC, as the first leg of the Triple Crown averaged a robust 14.4 million viewers and a 7.2 household rating.
Bob Baffert on Saturday notched his seventh victory in the Run for the Roses, as his Medina Spirit held on to a half-length win over Mandaloun, which marked the closest finish at Churchill Downs since 2005. In so doing, the trainer and his equine protégé helped NBC deliver what now stands as the 25th most-watched broadcast of 2021.
Toss in the nearly 140,000 users who streamed the Derby, and NBC’s May 1 coverage averaged 14.5 million viewers overall. Viewership peaked at 15.7 million viewers during the quarter-hour that coincided with the race itself.
While this year’s Derby didn’t set any records—NBC hit its high-water mark in 2010, when Super Saver won a tight race in front of a TV crowd of 16.5 million viewers—the return to the race’s regular slot on the spring calendar went a long way toward normalizing the Nielsen ratings.
Ratings for the race portion of the 2020 Kentucky Derby, which aired on Sept. 5, were predictably depressed (9.26 million viewers/4.8 rating) by a four-month delay and the fact that the traditional Triple Crown sequence had been so thoroughly disrupted.
If America still hasn’t shaken off the coronavirus, the crowd scene at the Derby made the case that we’re gradually working our way back to pre-lockdown conditions. Attendance at Churchill Downs was estimated at 51,838, and while that’s a far cry from the 150,000 enthusiasts who make their way through the turnstiles in a “normal” year, it also marked the largest crowd to gather at a sporting event in the U.S. since the pandemic began disrupting day-to-day life last March.
NBC’s Derby coverage generated north of $35 million in ad sales, per media buyer estimates, with the top sponsors including Ford, Woodford Reserve, Geico and White Claw Hard Seltzer. (A reminder to fans of the beverage’s unofficial slogan, “Ain’t No Laws When You’re Drinking Claws”: There are laws, and you should abide by them. That goes double for horses.)
While not at the higher end of NBC’s Derby spectrum—in addition to the aforementioned 2010 broadcast, the network put up big numbers with Always Dreaming’s win in 2017 (16.4 million viewers) and American Pharoah’s historic run in 2015 (16.0 million)—this year’s race scared up a TV audience that was identical to the race’s 21st century average.
But for last year’s temporally dislocated Derby, the Triple Crown opener has been a reliable ratings driver for NBC. American Pharoah went a long way toward reviving interest in the race, after he ended a 37-year dry spell by winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. Three short years later, Justified repeated the three-fer nearly 40 years to the day after Affirmed completed the circuit at Belmont Park.
American Pharoah clinched the Triple Crown while 18.6 million viewers looked on, but that Belmont broadcast wasn’t NBC’s biggest racing draw. In 2004, Smarty Jones lost to the 36-1 usurper Birdstone, spoiling the favorite’s seemingly inevitable date with destiny and crushing the hopes of 21.9 million viewers hoping to witness the first successful Triple Crown bid in 26 years.
Futility in Belmont was a not-unfamiliar experience when Smarty Jones faltered in the home stretch, as his defeat came hot on the heels of Funny Cide’s third-place finish the year before and War Emblem’s derailed attempt in 2002.