Event Spotlight: The Kentucky Derby

Viewership success rides on casual fans
05 May 2023
Kentucky Derby
Ryan Mccconell

Senior Vice President and Head of North America Subscription Services, US

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The 149th Kentucky Derby will be held Saturday, May 6th, and along with the annual influx of ornate hats, bourbon, and mint juleps come hopes of high viewership: Last year’s event drew 16 million viewers as Rich Strike shocked the world and overcame 80-1 odds for the victory.

Despite consistently high viewership of its crown jewel event, horse racing’s popularity has fallen since the days of Secretariat and Seattle Slew -- as recently as 1979, it ranked as the fourth most popular sport in the U.S.:

Rank of sports watched or considered watching: 1979

#1: Football: 70%
#2: Baseball: 68%
#3: Basketball: 51%
#4: Horse Racing: 38%
#5: Tennis: 37%
#6: Hockey: 31%

Source: 1979 U.S. MONITOR ; among nationally representative U.S. population (not sports fans)

Now, 44 years later, according to Kantar Sports MONITOR’s 2023 Fan Engagement study (April 2023), just 18% of sports fans indicate they are extremely/very involved horse racing fans, ranking it 31st place of 48 sports/leagues measured (alongside men’s tennis, National Women’s Soccer League, and All-Elite Wrestling).

Highly Involved Fans (top 2 box of 5): 2023

#1: NFL Football: 62%
#2: Major League Baseball: 45%
#3: National Basketball Association: 43%
#4: College Football: 42%
#5: College Men’s Basketball: 35%

#30: NWSL: 18%
#31: Horse Racing: 18%
#32: AEW: 18%

Source: Sports MONITOR 2023 Fan Engagement Study (April 2023); among sports fans, ages 12+

Yet, the pageantry, spectacle, and tradition associated with horse racing’s crown jewel keep it relevant in the broader sports culture – making it more appealing to the casual fan than the typical event. This may explain why the percentage of sports fans who typically have a high or moderate interest in watching The Kentucky Derby (37%) is twice as large as the percentage of highly involved horse racing fans (18%).

The Kentucky Derby’s 13 sponsors include Coca-Cola, Brown-Forman, Vineyard Vines, Ford, and BMW, among others, all of whom surely hope this year’s event attracts the 26% of fans who indicate they typically have a “low” (but not non-existent) interest in the event (#1 of all events measured).

Staying relevant with Gen Z

The Kentucky Derby created a set of casual and light informational videos on its TikTok channel aimed at making the sport more accessible to Gen Z and those unfamiliar with the sport.

Kentucky Derby - TikTok

It also partnered with Gen Z icon and Kentucky native Jack Harlow to call “Riders Up” at last year’s race, where the rapper filmed the video for his song Churchill Downs with Drake.

Kentucky Derby - Drake

Interested in more fan insights? Stay tuned for details on our upcoming webinar on June 7: Kantar Sports MONITOR Outlook: Winning the Battle for Fan Attention. For more information on how Sports MONITOR’s data, insights, and consulting team can help you contact Ryan.McConnell@kantar.com or Steve.Kulp@kantar.com.

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