Hoping for NBA assist, Triple Crown moves to NBC


After years of squaring off with the basketball playoffs on spring Saturday afternoons, the Triple Crown will join forces with the NBA, in a manner of speaking.

The three thoroughbred races -- the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes -- will leave their longtime television home at ABC and go to NBC, starting in 2001, the first year of a five-year contract.

So, rather than competing with the NBA playoffs for viewers, the races will come under the NBC umbrella with them.

"It was a fun negotiation, in the tradition of the NBA. The Triple Crown is the only big event that has met head-to-head by another big event," NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol said yesterday. "I would expect the ratings to go up 10, 15 or 20 percent right off the bat."

Tom Meeker, chief executive officer of Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, said the move from ABC -- which has aired the Triple Crown races for more than 20 years and the Derby for 25 -- came in large part because the tracks thought NBC could do a better job of promoting the races.

Also, Meeker said, NBC, which carries the Breeders' Cup each November, would do a better job of helping racing increase its audience, particularly among younger viewers, with whom the peacock network has been king over the past few seasons.

Said Ebersol: "We don't have Mr. Ed to do the promotion, but I think we'll retain the younger audience."

The money didn't hurt NBC's chances, either. NBC reportedly will pay $51.5 million over the five years, $16 million more than ABC was willing to offer.

Ebersol said the Derby and the Preakness, the first two jewels in the crown, will be preceded on the first and third Saturdays in May, respectively, by NBA playoff games. The Belmont, three weeks after the Preakness, will not have a direct NBA lead-in, but will have two days of promotions during the NBA Finals to help guide viewers.

Meeker said ABC had not been approached about giving up its 2000 Triple Crown telecasts, but an early move to NBC is possible.

New voice for Terps

Former American University men's basketball coach Chris Knoche (pronounced knock-ee), the new radio analyst for Maryland men's games, is no stranger to calling hoops on the radio, having done a package of games over the past two seasons for Westwood One and CBS Radio, including the NCAA men's tournament.

Perhaps more significantly, Knoche is no stranger to Maryland coach Gary Williams or his operation. Knoche, who will replace Greg Manning, who left College Park to become athletic director at Georgia State, was Williams' first recruit at American and considers him a friend and mentor.

But Knoche said his relationship with Williams won't get in the way of calling things as he sees them.

"It's very easy for people to make judgments who only see the team two hours at a time. It's the coach who's in there every day in practice, and I know what that's like," said Knoche, a Fairfax, Va., native.

"But if you listen, you'll find out that while I am a huge Gary Williams fan, he knows that I have a job to do and that I was hired for my experience, not because I know Gary," Knoche said.

While on the Maryland campus, we note that preseason All-America candidate Terence Morris, who has been chatting occasionally with ESPN.com users, has his own Web site, with the URL of http: //www.terencemorris.com.

The second season

The baseball playoffs begin tonight with NBC, the incidental telecaster, dropping in to carry Game 1 of the Division Series between the Texas Rangers and the (surprise, surprise) New York Yankees at 8 on Channel 11, with Bob Costas and Joe Morgan in the booth.

Meanwhile, ESPN opens its coverage with split doubleheaders tonight and tomorrow. Both days' schedules commence at 3: 40 p.m. with a pre-game show, followed by a game from Atlanta at 4 p.m., then an 11 p.m. contest from Arizona.

ESPN's Atlanta coverage will have something of an Orioles feel, with former broadcaster Jon Miller and former pitcher Rick Sutcliffe doing the games tonight and tomorrow. Chris Berman, Ray Knight and Buck Martinez will be in Phoenix. ESPN will pick up Game 2 of the Boston Red Sox-Cleveland Indians series Thursday at 4 p.m.

On Fox, which opens its coverage tomorrow night with the first game of the Red Sox-Indians series (Channel 45, 8 o'clock), the big news is that, for the first time in its four years of baseball telecasts, producer John Filippelli will not be at the helm.

Filippelli, who left Fox earlier this year to head production at ABC Sports, is widely acknowledged as one of the best baseball producers ever, but his role has been filled nicely this season by Michael Weisman, who will head the crew with Joe Buck and Tim McCarver that will work tonight's game.

"Flip [Filippelli] had a great opportunity that comes once in a lifetime," said Ed Goren, Fox's executive producer. "But making the decision all the easier was knowing we have Mike on the team. Before the season, I said Mike Weisman might be the best baseball producer, not just working now, but ever, and I've seen nothing to disprove that."

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