In Depth

Sports Programming Surges

Ratings Rise Across the Board; Networks Seek to Capitalize

Networks may have taken their hits during sweeps, but a perfect storm of opportunity has propelled one programming genre to broad ratings gains: sports.

Since November, sports programming has, simply put, been on a tear. Almost every league has seen upticks in ratings and audiences, led by Fox’s record-setting broadcast of the Super Bowl.

Two sports that have seen steady declines in recent years—the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League—have bucked their ratings misfortunes, helping put the leagues, as well as the networks that carry them, back in the black on their broadcast deals.

TV industry analysts attribute the growing audiences for sports to a number of factors this winter: terrific matchups, cold weather driving people indoors, the Writers Guild of America strike taking first-run content off the airwaves, more people buying HD television sets.

“The increasing penetration of HD households, as well as reception of HD content for sports is among the biggest drivers that is helping ratings,” said Artie Bulgrin, senior VP, research and sales development, ESPN. “The early indication is that a sport produced in HD can drive viewing. We at ESPN see HD as a game changer for sports television, especially as we see penetration growing.”

The question now is what, exactly, the networks can do to keep from losing the ratings gains
they’ve made.

“It’s clear that fresh, live content is king, and because of the writers strike there’s been a trickle-down effect,” said Robert Horowitz, president of Juma Entertainment (whose “Deer Valley Celebrity Skifest” saw double-digit growth on CBS in December). “The networks must now take advantage of this sampling by placing sports in prime positions where they can succeed and give them more promotion.”

Network sources said the financial benefits of the ratings spike likely will take hold next winter, when ad rates can be adjusted to match the growth.

The list of sports seeing higher ratings reads like a fantasy camp brochure: Pro basketball? Up. Tennis? Up. Ice skating? Up. A sport-by-sport breakdown of the ratings follows.

The NFL’s Super Bowl XLII scored viewership records for Fox, drawing the largest average audience in the game’s history at 97.4 million. The Pro Bowl posted a 37% gain over last year’s audience with a 6.3 rating and a 12 share. Among men 18-34, ratings rose 59% to a 4.3 rating.

Audiences for pro basketball are rising after a dip. NBA viewership this season is up 11% on ABC to 3.7 million on average, and up 12% on ESPN to 1.47 million. TNT gained 1% to 1.42 million.

College basketball has benefited from a change in ratings methodology.
“We’ve gotten a big lift ever since Nielsen decided to finally recognize the college student viewing audience,” said Mr. Bulgrin; ESPN’s college basketball games are up 7% in households and 25% in men 18-49.

The NHL is experiencing its own revival. NBC boosted viewership of its games 26% to 1.8 million. The network aired the sport’s first Winter Classic outdoor game on Jan. 1, scoring a 2.6 overnight rating and a 5 share. The Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Buffalo Sabres 2-1 in the first U.S. outdoor game in NHL history.

On Versus, hockey audiences grew 30%. League executives say it’s experiencing higher cable ratings now than when it was carried on ESPN.

“I think our broadcast partners at both the national and local level in the United States have taken advantage of the input and feedback from us on how the game should be produced,” said John Shannon, executive VP of broadcasting and production for the NHL. “It was a three- to five-year plan that is now paying off for the sport. In addition, we’ve got a terrific talent pool of great young hockey players in their teens and 20s that is turning new fans on to the sport.”

Winter Sports
The winter has been kind to ESPN and ABC, which saw Winter X Games 12 in February score as ESPN’s most-watched ever. The eight telecasts were seen on average by 863,000 homes, up 17% from 2007. The key demographic age groups (18-24, 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54) also delivered their most-viewed Winter X Games, all up by double digits across the board.

NBC’s coverage of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on NBC was the most-watched in five years, attracting almost 12.5 million viewers.

PGA Golf is up 8% for the networks that carry the sport. NBC’s ratings benefited from final-round coverage of the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship, which earned a 3.5/7 overnight, up 67% from 2007 (2.1/4). It was the best final-round overnight for the event since 2004, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Tennis audiences grew during January’s Australian Open, up 24% in household ratings and 40% in men 18-34 on ESPN.

NASCAR had stumbled in recent years, but has added viewers this season despite a rainout that delayed the sport’s second race this year on Fox.