On Wednesday, Fox Sports announced it had acquired the exclusive media rights to the Belmont Stakes through 2030. Terms of the eight-year pact, which begins in 2023, were not disclosed. The third jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown should fit nicely within Fox’s portfolio of “championship live events.” But as Michael Mulvihill (EVP, head of strategy & analytics, Fox Sports) explained, the company’s desire to add another marquee sporting event was only half of the race’s appeal. “The other factor is [that] we, and every other major media company, are trying to develop our gaming business…. [And Belmont is] a chance for us to further develop what we think of as our evolution from being purely a content brand into more of a content and gaming brand.”
JWS’ Take: Historically speaking, broadcast networks have found it difficult to carry just a single leg of racing’s Triple Crown and make it work from a strategic business perspective. But it’s been more than a decade since anyone outside of NBC Sports carried the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness States or the Belmont Stakes. (ABC/ESPN last carried the Belmont in 2010.) Fox Sports believes the U.S. legalization of sports betting, however, has altered the equation.
Fox Sports maintains equity stakes in two gaming-related entities: Fox Bet (a mobile sports betting company in partnership with Flutter, available in five states) and NYRA Bets (an online wagering platform in partnership with the New York Racing Association, available in more than 30 states). Mulvihill says those interests enable the company to think “a little bit differently” about broadcasting horse racing on TV—or at least differently than those who have carried Triple Crown races in the past. “Because we have a minority interest in NYRA Bets, we can generate revenue selling advertising, as has been the case in sports TV for years, and we can generate revenue by increasing sign-ups and delivering new accounts to NYRA Bets and benefit from that increased wagering,” he said. The TVG Network has employed a similar model for years.
In years where there is a horse vying for the Triple Crown, TV ratings for the Belmont Stakes tend to be strong (though they have dipped a bit after American Pharoah and Justify both achieved the feat within a four-year period). But in years where there is not, interest typically wanes. So, historically, purchasing the broadcast rights to the final leg of the Triple Crown could be considered risky. But Mulvihill explained Fox’s interest in NYRA Bets makes the company “a little less reliant on the possibility that a horse will come to the Belmont with a chance to sweep the Triple Crown” than those who have carried the race in the past.
Fox Sports believes it can “grow [the NYRA Bets] business and point people to [the platform] regardless of whether a horse comes to the Belmont with a chance to make some history,” Mulvihill said. Logic suggests the avid horse racing fan—the one most likely to wager on races throughout the year—will tune in regardless of circumstance.
Of course, if Fox Sports had its way a horse would come to Belmont with a chance to sweep the Triple Crown every year. As Matthew Cacciato (executive director, AECOM Center for Sports Administration, Ohio University) noted, “The amplification factor adds significant potential.”
NYRA Bets will be the title sponsor of the Belmont Stakes for the duration of Fox Sports’ broadcast contract. And the online wagering platform will be featured prominently during the network’s coverage of the event. But that does not mean viewers are going to be inundated with gaming-related messaging or calls to action. “First and foremost, it’s still a classic event, and it has to be covered as a sports event first,” Mulvihill said.
What viewers can expect are a series of call-outs, encouraging account creation, the introduction of unique betting opportunities and a broadcast that features the handicapping element of racing more prominently than broadcasters have done in the past. “Horse players are the lifeblood of the sport, and we don’t want to shy from that,” the Fox Sports executive explained.
The Belmont Stakes is set to become the highest-profile U.S. sporting event with a gaming company as its title sponsor. But that designation may not last long. As sports betting increasingly becomes mainstream and “wagering becomes more a part of the life of a sports fan, you will see more gaming brands try to get into event sponsorships. I feel like we’re at the front of that curve,” Mulvihill said.
Do not be surprised if Fox Sports ends up using its broadcast of the Belmont Stakes to grow the Fox Bet brand, too. “Ed Hartman, who is our head of business development, likes to say that not every sports bettor is a horse player. But every horse player is a sports bettor,” Mulvihill said. That would seemingly make the race fertile recruiting ground for the sports betting outfit.
As it stands, there is no formal relationship between Fox Bet and NYRA Bets. But it is not as if the two companies are competing with one another. While some suspected, prior to PASPA being struck down, that sports betting legislation would dampen horse racing’s popularity and result in less money being wagered on the sport, that has not been the case. “Betting handle on horse racing hit a 12-year high last year,” Mulvihill said. A September 2021 Macquarie Research report indicated Twin Spires’ handle increased at an 18% CAGR between 2007 and 2020.
While the Belmont is Fox Sports’ only Triple Crown race, the broadcaster began airing live coverage from Saratoga Race Course on FS2 in 2016 (a move that coincided with the launch of NYRA Bets) and has added programming to its collective of channels every year since. Fox Sports carried more than 700 hours of live horse racing in 2020. The company’s deep tie-up with NYRA should help to scale out Belmont.
NBC Sports will continue to carry the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. A network spokesperson said the loss of the Belmont will not impact coverage. “We will continue to present the extensive Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes coverage that viewers have come to expect from the home of horse racing in the U.S.”