HDTV drives increase in sports viewers

Nielsen released a new study calling 2008 a banner years in sports media
Nielsen says the most popular form of HDTV programming in the United States is sports.

In the years when the benefits of HDTV were being sold to the public, one of the chief beneficiaries was to be sports. The promoters argued that watching sports programming in HD would be one of the new medium’s driving forces.

Apparently, they were right. Last week, Nielsen released a new study calling 2008 a banner year in sports media. Among the highlights were the Olympics, the most-watched global event in history; the most-watched Super Bowl; and the most-watched cable broadcast of all time — the Cowboys-Eagles “Monday Night Football” game, with 18.6 million viewers.

The year scored other most-watched highlights, including baseball on cable (Red Sox-Rays in ALCS Game 7) and the most-watched cable golf program (Tiger Woods vs. Rocco Mediate at the U.S. Open playoff).

Nielsen said that at least 22 percent of U.S. households now get HDTV — up from 10 percent in September 2007 — and its ratings for TV sports are 20 percent higher than in the United States overall. The most popular form of HDTV programming is sports commentary, the rating service found.

Nielsen, which has been analyzing TV viewing since the 1950s, said U.S. TV usage is at an all-time high. The average American watches about 142 TV hours a month — compared to about 27 hours online — with 31 percent of in-home Internet use taking place while the viewer is also watching television.

Each screen feeds the other: ESPN.com users spend 27 percent more time watching ESPN on television than those who only absorb ESPN via TV, Nielsen found.

Sports leagues and news channels produce vast amounts of data, news and highlights that can fill multiple media outlets. The online platform is particularly important in empowering and engaging the sports fan. Nielsen said more than 75 million people visited sports Web sites in October alone.

Mobile use is also changing sports coverage. According to Nielsen Mobile, 10.6 million U.S. mobile subscribers accessed sports content over mobile phones in August 2008. ESPN’s site alone was accessed by 6.3 million subscribers. ESPN is also the second most-watched mobile video channel among subscriber-viewers, second only to NBC.

Nielsen Mobile estimates that in the second quarter of 2008 more than 400,000 Verizon and AT&T subscribers received ESPN alerts over text message and 200,000 received MLB alerts as fans tried to stay tuned to their favorite teams — both real and fantasy.