Pair of Sagging Sports Jump Back Into the Spotlight

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By George Solomon
Sunday, May 13, 2007

Horse racing and boxing -- sports that have been declared irrelevant by many media decision-makers seeking the right demographic -- showed a pulse last Saturday. In fact, it was more like a thunderbolt.

Consider this: The Kentucky Derby, with Street Sense winning with a stirring stretch run, drew 11.5 million television viewers. That would be a jump of 8 percent from a year ago when the late Barbaro won the hearts of so many fans.

Later that night, Floyd Mayweather Jr. outboxed Oscar De La Hoya before a sold-out house in Las Vegas with a record 2.15 million pay-per-view buys generating another record of $120 million in revenue.

That'll turn some heads.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, when the late Shirley Povich was writing six or seven columns a week in these pages, horse racing and boxing were two of the top draws in sports, with baseball, college football and golf. The NFL hadn't yet gripped the nation, Red Auerbach was trying to convince fans that pro basketball was worth a look and Ultimate Fighting took place only in alleys.

But times change and the sports caravan moves on (who else condenses 77 years in one paragraph for you?). Fans don't watch the fights very much anymore, with the heavyweight division nearly extinct and stars of any weight class few and far between. The Triple Crown still has major appeal, but day-to-day horse racing struggles for even a few lines in most newspapers.

"Both sports were a big deal in the day," NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol said in a telephone interview. "But boxing can no longer get access to a big audience."

Why?

"Advertisers don't want to be involved in boxing. They think something will go wrong."

Ebersol said he couldn't be more pleased with NBC's ratings on the Derby ("a 50 percent jump" in seven years), adding that the sport "disappears" after the Triple Crown. "These great horses seldom race again beyond June 15. Nowadays a horse goes from the cradle to the Derby to stud. You can't create stars that way.

"Seabiscuit," Ebersol added, "raced twice a month for years."

Jim Gluckson, the spokesman for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, knows the sport has a problem once the Triple Crown ends. "We're pointing to the second half of the year, to the Breeders' Cup [Oct. 27] with the Breeders' Cup Challenge [24 qualifying races] in the coming months for 24 spots. And we'd like to promote our personalities, like Street Sense jockey Calvin Borel meeting Queen Elizabeth II at a state dinner at the White House."


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