Sports Biz: NFL TV ratings get off to a flying start

The National Football League season got off to a strong start for broadcasters.

According to Fox Sports and NBC Sports, the games they showcased on their networks gave them their biggest audience in years. Fox, which is owned by News Corp. (NWS), attracted more than 25 million viewers for its Week 1 National Game, making it the most watched week one game ever on Fox.

General Electric Co. (GE)-owned NBC attracted an average audience of 20.9 million viewers for its Sunday night telecast of the Pittsburgh Steelers-Tennessee Titans game. That was the biggest audience for any sporting event since the Super Bowl, which was the most-watched broadcast in U.S.television history. It was also the most-watched prime time show on any broadcast network since May's season finale of "American Idol."
Several reasons explain this phenomena. First, there are a large number of compelling story lines for NFL fans to follow. Also, fewer people probably can afford to attend NFL games in person because of the expense, though teams are launching promotions to keep games more affordable. Moreover, people experiencing tough economic times look to sports for escapist entertainment. Many baseball teams, for instance, have seen double-digit ratings increases even as ticket sales remain lackluster.

For broadcasters, this NFL season offers an unusual amount of drama.

For example, the Philadelphia Eagles signed quarterback Michael Vick months after he was released from prison on charges related to his involvement in a dog fighting ring. Eagles fans are even more nervous about Vick following starter Donovan McNabb's injury in last week's home opener against Carolina. But the biggest story line of the season may involve the on-again, off-again retirement plans of Brett Favre. A likely Hall of Famer, the quarterback shocked the Green Bay Packer faithful a few years ago when he retired and then changed his mind and went to play for the New York Jets. That did not work out, but the native son of Mississippi decided against hanging it up and headed to the Minnesota Vikings, the arch-rivals of the Packers. Favre's return match against his old team will be one of the most watched games of the season.

Earlier this summer, Fox along with CBS Corp, (CBS). renewed their deals with the NFL. In August, NBC extended its contract for "Sunday Night Football" through the 2013 season.

Looks like there will be plenty of NFL profits for everyone.

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