In Depth

Sports: TV's Power Play

As Many Genres Lose Steam, Athletics Is Gaining Momentum

Sports is bucking the downward ratings trends in television.

The indisputable success of NBC’s broadcast of the Beijing Olympics cements strong upticks around the dial for major sporting events and makes 2008 a contender to be one of the strongest years ever for sports television. That’s helping networks that air athletic contests build and package audiences that are more immune to the havoc wreaked by digital video recorders on other genres of programming.

Among the success stories in 2008 have been the two biggest players in U.S. sports viewing, the Super Bowl and the Olympics, which shattered viewership records.

“I sent (NBC Universal Sports & Olympics Chairman Dick) Ebersol an e-mail in China congratulating him on the success of the Olympics and noted what a great year it has been for sports,” Fox Sports President Ed Goren said. “Dick e-mailed me back saying it all started with the Super Bowl on Fox. That makes you feel good, and it’s good for our industry to see the kinds of numbers we’ve been getting.”

Other marquee events have fostered the boom as well. Ratings gainers this year include the National Football Conference playoffs, the NCAA Tournament final, the NBA finals, the Stanley Cup finals, golf’s U.S. Open, the Wimbledon finals and the MLB All-Star Game.

Great Games
Some of the ratings spikes for events have been enormous: Witness the Stanley Cup finals, the NBA finals and Wimbledon.

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.

“The NBA on TNT enjoyed consistent ratings growth throughout our regular season and all the way through our exclusive coverage of the Western Conference Finals,” Turner Sports President David Levy said. “The bottom line for Turner Sports: Big brands and big markets translated into big numbers for us, both on television and online.”

Executives admit that much of the glow has been luck. Tiger Woods achieved a come-from-behind victory in the U.S. Open playoff. Michael Phelps posted a perfect Olympic run. At Wimbledon, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal fought an epic battle. The New England Patriots ran a perfect season heading into the Super Bowl.

Television executives also note viewers invest in watching sports because of the human drama the events put on display.

“As a company, two and a half years ago, we invested billions of dollars in sports rights,” Mr. Goren said. “We made that investment with the belief that, as we move forward with more options for people, and as the television universe gets more and more diverse, the one segment of network television that would continue to be must-see TV and would continue to deliver large audiences would be the major sports events because that’s where the water-cooler talk will be.”

Hot Market
Analysts and executives alike continue to point toward sports entertainment as an instant brand-maker for television outlets, bringing audiences, advertisers and national awareness to a channel. Fox took that step when it first acquired the NFL, and Fox’s MyNetworkTV continued that mentality by jumping on World Wrestling Entertainment’s events for this season’s telecasts.

The demand for sports programming has created a ripple effect, putting premiums on broadcast and digital rights as networks compete for new properties.

“There have been stories in sports this year that have been absolutely amazing, and you
couldn’t even begin to make this stuff up,” said Bob Horowitz, president of Juma Entertainment, which produces a number of sports-themed series every year. “Sports makes compelling TV and provides great storytelling for producers in the non-scripted side of the business. When you have authentic, real competition like the Olympics, it can result in unbelievable numbers. Best of all, sports is TiVo-proof—you can’t DVR sports.”

Sports events’ ability to dodge DVRs continues to catch the eye of advertisers, with many events shattering records in sponsorship deals.

“Advertising continues to be strong, despite the economy struggling,” Mr. Goren said. “Advertisers have cut back in a lot of media, but I think television sports in general have come through in the past 12 months healthier than a lot of segments of the media, although there is a concern going forward.”

The mission now for executives will be to capitalize on this year’s gains.

“As we conclude the MLB regular season, we hope the memorable storylines that have drawn so much fan interest will continue to drive viewers to TBS’ exclusive MLB Division Series and American League Championship Series this October,” said Mr. Levy. “On the NBA front, we hope we can continue to deliver on the momentum from last season and grow from the added strength we will gain this year from our oversight of the NBA’s digital assets.”