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.
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.
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.