Stephen Master, Vice President, Nielsen Sports
SUMMARY: 2009 was a record-breaking year for U.S. sports television, featuring the most-viewed Super Bowl ever, the most-viewed Stanley Cup in seven years, and the most-viewed World Series in five years. What trends ignited this growth and what’s in store for 2010?
Unlike many sectors, U.S. sports television had a banner year in 2009. Viewership of major events hit record levels: Super Bowl XLIII was the most-viewed in history; the Stanley Cup was the most-viewed in seven years, followed by the World Series (most in five years).
Driving this growth were technology advances such as satellite television—now in 28.9% of U.S. homes—which spurred an 8% higher rating for network sporting events in satellite TV homes in 2009 and High Definition TV—in 33% of U.S. homes—which prompted network sporting events to receive 21% higher ratings in HD. And, of course, the Internet and sports web sites, which increased 19% from October 2008, provide fans with a virtual sports bar for online conversation. So what are the trends driving the data?
- The Internet: Sports sites and streaming events tend to complement sports viewing rather than cannibalize it. Blogs and social networks provide fans a virtual “sports bar” for online conversation. The Nielsen TV-Internet convergence panel found that viewers visit social networks more than sports websites while watching games. But thanks in part to fantasy leagues, sports websites are still drawing big numbers: more than 88 million Americans checked out a sports site in October of 2009—that’s up 19% from October 2008.
- Satellite TV: Satellite television providers are now in 28.9% of U.S. TV homes, and offer robust sports tiers, including league-run networks which keep fans engaged during the off-season. Take note: Homes with satellite TV score higher network ratings (8% more) for sports programming than those without satellite.
- HDTV: It’s no secret that sports look great in High Definition, and as HD penetration continues to grow (in May 2009 HD sets were in 33% of U.S. homes), sports viewing is poised to grow in tandem. This year network sporting events received 21% higher ratings in HD.
Picking Winners for 2010? Bet on Globalization
2010 will feature two major international sporting events: the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, BC, and the World Cup in South Africa. More than a year after the Beijing Olympics attracted 4.7 billion global viewers (211 million in the U.S.), it will be interesting to see the expanded role social media outlets will play in international media coverage and fan engagement.
Globalization also presents sports properties with opportunities to grow their fan base: In 2009, the NFL televised a regular season game in London; the NHL dropped the puck in Scandinavia; and the NBA played preseason games in Europe, Asia, and Mexico. The more these leagues extend into new markets, the greater the global reach for their sponsors and advertising partners.
Meanwhile, the already global game of soccer, er, football, for most of the world, is poised again to drive towards its final frontier: the United States. On top of the stateside MLS, the British Premier League and the Champions League are now available to watch in the U.S. With the American team qualifying for the World Cup, soccer seems poised once again to make a run at mainstream American popularity. Lower ticket prices, a futbol-loving Hispanic population that’s growing in the U.S., and a young generation raised on soccer, are other trends that bode well for the sport.
On Defense: Long-Term Threats
More than half of sports fans who identify themselves as “avid fans” reported cutting back on attending sporting events due to the economy. As consumers scrutinize their discretionary income, it remains to be seen if consumer and fan confidence will come back to the stadiums once economic fears have subsided. Nielsen studies have shown that consumers are staying home more, not surprising considering the investment many sports fans are making in their HDTVs and satellite packages.
In the near future, the major sports leagues are also looking with some concern at the next generation of fans. Will they be filling those seats of all these shiny new arenas? According to Nielsen’s How Teens Use Media, teenagers actually under-index when it comes to visiting sports sites on their mobile phones compared to the rest of the population. Will that translate into a more muted engagement going forward with TV viewing, online participation, and live game attendance? Sports franchises are on the edge of their seats, wondering how the first generation born in the digital age will impact the sports world in the next inning of the digital revolution.