How popular are sports on TV?

By - Last modified: May 18, 2012 at 3:53 PM

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On Monday of this week, NBC sent out a press release celebrating the ratings for this year’s NHL playoffs. According to the network, the first two rounds of playoffs averaged 1.06 million viewers, making them the most watched edition of those rounds in the 18 years that data has been tracked. The Rangers and Capitals’ triple overtime thriller led all games at 1.85 million viewers. Total viewership was up 23 percent!

How significant is that? Not very. Even the most-watched, most exciting game in this year's playoffs can’t compete against the likes of reruns on cable. On Tuesday night of this week, back-to-back syndicated reruns of “The Big Bang Theory” on TBS earned more than 2.5 million viewers for 2 ½ straight hours. Also on Tuesday of this week, an episode of the History Channel’s “Swamp People” ran at the same time (and similarly few teeth) but drew 48 percent more viewers than the LA Kings-Phoenix Coyotes playoff game. Programs also outdrawing that game: Food Network’s “Chopped,” “Real Housewives” of someplace, and something on Syfy called “Fact or Faked.”

The NBA playoffs also are going on right now, but they’re well outperforming the NHL. Monday’s Clippers-Spurs game drew 6.7 million viewers. Tuesday’s doubleheader of Clippers-Spurs and Pacers-Heat each drew more than 4.5 million viewers. Those numbers won the cable ratings for their nights and put the NBA’s viewership close to that of the shows on major broadcast networks at the same time. The viewership leaders lately, for comparison, have been “Dancing With The Stars” and “American Idol” at 10 million to 15 million viewers per episode.

Baseball ratings are understandably low during the season, which plays far more games than any other league, and often during daytime or on weekdays. In local markets, teams can do fairly well, especially on regional sports networks. Earlier this month, the Rangers were the No. 2 watched program in the Dallas TV market, even ahead of “American Idol.” The World Series does okay, with last year’s averaging 16.5 million viewers per game.

Nothing in sports, and almost all of TV, compares to the ratings draw of the NFL. Last January, when the N.Y. Giants and San Francisco 49er’s faced off in the NFC championship game, the game was watched by 57 million viewers. According to the Neilsen ratings method, that means that 33.4 percent of every TV household in the largest 56 urban markets was tuned in. For a game that wasn’t even the league championship.

The 2011 Super Bowl was the most watched U.S. TV program ever at 111 million viewers. Here’s a great comparison: Last October, when the Yankees played the Tigers in the playoffs, Monday Night Football drew 79 percent more viewers. And that NFL game featured a Colts team that was the worst in the league last year and without Peyton Manning. Even on its worst nights, the NFL rules sports ratings.

Of course, there are viewers, and there are the viewers that advertisers want. The most coveted demographic for advertisers is the 18-49 year olds. The Kentucky Derby is a great example. This year’s telecast on NBC drew 14.8 million viewers — pretty good for a horse race at the dinner hour on Saturday. However, the median age of the viewer was 60 years old. NBC must be celebrating that as much as I celebrated my betting tickets for the race (thanks, post-19 15-1 shot I’ll Have Another).

Bill Sayer is a financial analyst in the insurance industry and holds a degree in economics. A native of Upstate New York, Bill enjoys watching college football, the NFL, NHL and Premier League soccer from his home in Palmyra. Have a suggestion, link or question?

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