NBC is adding Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski to its Kentucky Derby telecast as fashion correspondents next week, illustrating how the network's coverage now reflects one of the most female-friendly televised sporting events of the year.
The two figure skaters, who were the breakout stars of NBC's Sochi Olympics broadcast team, will comment on the fashionable outfits worn by members of the rich and celebrity-filled audience who try to avoid spilling mint juleps on their designer duds, the network said Tuesday.
The image of cigar-chomping race fans no longer applies to horse racing's signature event. Slightly more than half of NBC's Derby viewers last year were women attracted to the party, the Nielsen company said. No other major TV sports event, with the exception of the Olympics, is so weighted toward female viewers, NBC said.
"It's not just a two-minute race," said Rob Hyland, coordinating producer for the NBC Sports Group. "Of course, the two-minute race is extremely important, but our job is to capture the venue and the day — it's a huge celebration — as creatively and poignantly as possible."
Hyland produced NBC's ice skating coverage in Sochi and saw firsthand how the rookie analyst team of Weir and Lipinski captured attention, primarily for their sense of style.
Their stars rising, the team was added to Access Hollywood's coverage of the Academy Awards, and now NBC's coverage of the Derby, scheduled May 3 from Churchill Downs in Kentucky.
"We've always loved loud fashion and sort of bonded over it," Lipinski said. "The whole Olympics experience was a bit of a surprise. We came in and were focused on doing a good job as rookies. But we're young and we like to have fun. The fashion was specifically for us every day and it was like, 'Oh, people are watching. This is fun.'"
Particularly for Weir; fans anticipated his wardrobe choices. Continuing their collaboration post-Olympics was a natural, Weir said, since they both follow fashion trends and designers closely as consumers.
"We've grown up as entertainers, and going out the door, what you're wearing is often the loudest statement you can make," Weir said.
They're also no strangers to the horse racing world. Lipinski rode horses when she was younger and Weir was more active, competing in equestrian events before he focused on figure skating. Weir said he attended the 2010 Kentucky Derby as a fan, earning money by betting on the winning horse. He also wore a giant, fur-covered sombrero, he said, raising anticipation for his outfit next week.
"I'm not such a sports guy, aside from what people may think," he said. "I love figure skating, I love my job, but aside from that, I prefer to run in meadows and chase butterflies."
The first hour of NBC's three-hour Derby coverage will be entertainment-focused, including red carpet arrivals coverage, Hyland said. NBC's coverage is preceded by four hours on the NBC Sports cable network. Between them, the two networks will carry each undercard race prior to the Derby.
NBC is also distributing to its local affiliates stories offering tips on how to throw Kentucky Derby parties, and how to mix the event's signature drinks.
The Derby coverage will also mark the NBC debut of Josh Elliott, who came to the network from ABC's "Good Morning America." He will be doing a series of taped pieces that are part of the coverage, along with celebrity interviews, Hyland said.
NBC's Derby telecast in 2013 was seen by 16.2 million viewers — 51 percent of them women — and was the second most-watched Derby in 25 years.