Football fans know the drill. The AFC is on CBS. The NFC is on Fox. And everyone seems to get along.
Now racing is falling into a similar pattern. Santa Anita is on TVG and NBCSN. Churchill Downs is on FS1 and FS2.
But this is more about a turf war, one that will manifest itself in June with Belmont Park being televised only on the Fox Sports networks and regional cable channels like MSG+. As things stand now the New York Racing Association – including Saratoga – will not be seen on TVG. Not on its main channel, and not even on TVG2.
“NYRA has informed us that it will not entertain granting non-exclusive television rights to TVG,” said Kip Levin, CEO of TVG. “We are disappointed that after a 20-year partnership and at such a crucial time for the sport, racing fans will be inconvenienced because Belmont Park’s races will not be available on either TVG or our simulcasts of ‘Trackside Live’ on NBCSN.”
Unless there is an unexpected, 11th-hour change, TVG viewers may see NYRA races only on the TVG.com digital platforms. It is the almost same thing that has happened with races from Churchill Downs since the current meet began May 15.
“This year we were presented with a unique opportunity to get an unprecedented amount of televised coverage from Belmont Park on national television on (the Fox Sports) family of networks,” said executive producer Tony Allevato of NYRA TV, which produces America’s Day at the Races in partnership not only with Fox Sports but also Churchill Downs.
“Additionally, MSG+ will air daily, full-card coverage of Belmont Park. TVG viewers and customers will continue to be able to watch and wager on Belmont races via TVG.com and the TVG app.”
While money is always at the root of any business partnership or contract negotiation, one executive who is plugged into these developments said it boils down to a battle of advance deposit wagering platforms.
“It’s not about money,” he said. “It’s more about weaponizing content to promote their own ADW platforms and shutting out the other ADWs.”
According to sources who provided insight on background:
* The TVG point of view is that Churchill Downs Inc., which operates the TwinSpires ADW, does not want its races shown on a channel that constantly promotes TVG.com.
* NYRA, which operates NYRA Bets, wants to create premium value for its product by selling and protecting its exclusivity.
* Churchill Downs is responding to being rejected by TVG when it tried to buy commercial time to promote TwinSpires.
For its part, TVG said that it wants to show races from anywhere they are being run. Asked why Churchill Downs is an exception, TVG executive producer and senior vice president Kevin Grigsby said, “You would have to talk to Churchill and ask them that question. The reality is that we would love to have them on TVG, but at the same time Churchill is a track that we offer wagering on, and they are on TVG2.”
When Churchill Downs was indeed asked, spokesman Darren Rogers said, “We offered the same product and deal to TVG as we did to Fox Sports, but it was rejected. We welcome and continue ongoing discussions with TVG.”
Not exactly a bystander in all this, The Stronach Group owns Santa Anita, Gulfstream Park and Laurel Park, the three tracks that are mainstays of TVG – and three tracks not shown now on America’s Day at the Races. It also operates 1/ST Bet, Xpressbet and XBTV, which has provided production support to both TVG and the Fox Sports telecasts.
The burgeoning TV partnership between Churchill, NYRA and Fox Sports has been in the works for close to a year. The result is that Belmont Park and Churchill Downs will be the centerpieces of America’s Day at the Races on FS1, FS2 and regional channels like MSG+.
“We can only show the races that we have the rights to,” said Allevato, who is also president of NYRA Bets. “Right now you see we’ve got Churchill, and Belmont starts on Wednesday. Both of those tracks are exclusive to Fox, so they will be on Fox.”
Until the middle of May, the NYRA show carried many of the same races as TVG but with different hosts, analysts, graphics and surrounding content. The fork in the road came when Churchill opened – and with Belmont on the horizon.
“I don’t know that it’s necessarily a good thing to have the same races on multiple channels, because at the end someone is going to get left out,” Allevato said. “It’s no different if you look at college football at the national level. Everybody is going to want to show Alabama-LSU, and nobody is going to want to show Texas Tech vs. Arkansas. I think it’s better to have two different channels show different races, and you present those races the best way possible.”
No one who talked publicly or privately about the TV racing landscape expressed expectations that it will change soon.
“We are consistently talking to everyone in the industry with an objective of bubbling up the sport in a positive light and putting it in front of as many people as possible,” Grigsby said. “There’s always open dialogue going on at the management level between our CEO and general counsel and relevant others at Churchill Downs. We’re in this together.”
The executive who said that this was not merely about money may have endorsed Grigsby’s statement indirectly when he said, “The relationship between Churchill Downs and TVG seems more contentious in the media than it actually is. They get along well. They just have a business disagreement.”
Ron Flatter has covered horse racing around the world for more than 30 years. Currently based in Nevada and working for the Vegas Stats & Information Network, he is host of the weekly Ron Flatter Racing Pod and on Twitter @ronflatter.