Sports: The Big Winner

Garrett Elwood/NBAE via Getty Images

In an on-demand, time-shifted media universe, ratings -- and ad rates -- for live sports programming continue to climb.

NBC's Sunday Night Football was the most-watched primetime program last fall, averaging more than 22 million viewers a game. It was also among the most expensive to advertise on -- more than $400,000 for a 30-second spot -- with an audience that is nearly 70 percent male. But viewers don't come cheap. The NFL and other major sports packages including the NBA, MLB, NHL and college football and basketball have traditionally been loss leaders that networks are willing to bankroll for the eyeballs and cachet they bring. The NFL, for instance, is shopping an eight-game Thursday night package that has generated interest from Turner, FX, ESPN and NBC for its newly renamed NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus). Insiders estimate that the package could go for more than $600 million a year -- which would be a steep increase, even for the top-rated sport on TV. CBS and Fox each shell out $700 million a year for full seasons of Sunday NFL games. Even less-popular sports are cashing in on increasingly lucrative rights deals: Earlier this year, NBC renewed its partnership with the NHL -- a sport that heretofore has skated under the radar -- for a whopping $2 billion for 10 years. And experts estimate that if the NBA can't work out its labor situation before the 2011-12 season is wiped out, TV partners ABC/ESPN and TNT could lose as much as $1.25 billion in ad-sales revenue. It remains to be seen whether the NFL's recently resolved labor problems will affect ratings this season. "I think in the ultimate, the labor dispute will have no impact," predicts NBC Sports analyst Al Michaels. "Everybody's as excited as they have ever been for football to start."     

Men dominate the audience for football and basketball.


  • Fox -- Viewers: 25.6 million // Male: 16.3 million
  • NBC -- Viewers: 22.7 million // Male: 15 million
  • CBS -- Viewers: 21.5 million // Male: 14.6 million
  • ESPN -- Viewers: 14.6 million // Male: 10.3 million
  • NFL Network -- Viewers: 5.7 million // Male: 3.9 million


  • ABC -- Viewers: 5.1 million // Male: 3.3 million
  • TNT-- Viewers: 2.4 million // Male: 1.6 million
  • ESPN-- Viewers: 2 million // Male: 1.4 million


  • CBS -- Viewers: 7.8 million // Male: 5.1 million
  • TBS -- Viewers: 2.5 million // Male: 1.7 million
  • TNT -- Viewers: 2.1 million // Male: 1.4 million
  • TruTV -- Viewers: 1.1 million // Male: 825,000

Source: Nielsen, live-plus-same-day (regular season)