LONDON - The Super Bowl, European soccer and Formula One's Canadian Grand Prix each drew more than 50 million viewers in 2005, proving that top sports programmes are among the few remaining in a fragmenting TV landscape to deliver large global audiences for advertisers.
Ninety-three million people tuned in to watch Super Bowl XXXIX between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles, but 98 per cent of them were from North America, according to data released by media buying and planning firm Initiative.
By comparison, Liverpool's 3-2 penalty shoot-out victory over AC Milan in the UEFA Champions League Final attracted an average audience of 73 million viewers spread across dozens of countries. The Canadian Grand Prix drew 51 million.
"The reality of which events are most popular are different than most consumers' perspectives," said Kevin Alavy, the senior analyst behind the Initiative research.
"I would wager that in Europe people would be a little bit surprised that the Super Bowl is number one because it draws its audience from only one market," he said.
The remaining seven events in the top 10 -- which included the men's 100 metres final in the World Athletics Championships, pro basketball's NBA Finals, baseball's World Series and cycling's Tour de France -- all had audiences less than half that of the Grand Prix.
The 10th most watched sporting event world-wide was the announcement that London would host the 2012 Summer Olympics, with 11 million viewers.
In even-numbered years, when either the Soccer World Cup or the European Soccer Championships are played, they typically outdraw the Super Bowl, with the Euro 2004 final, for example, boasting an average audience of 153 million people.
"For the vast majority of genre and other programming, audience is declining because of fragmentation, digital video recorders (DVRs) and commercial clutter, but some of the sports programming is becoming more powerful with every year that passes," Alavy said.
"I would expect that for these sports programmes, it will become yet more expensive to buy 30-second commercials," he added.
A 30-second Super Bowl commercial in 2005 cost US$2.4 million.
Sports programmes, because they are live, also tend to be immune to the affects of DVRs, which allow viewers to more easily watch programmes at a different time to when they are originally broadcast.
The only other 2005 event Alavy suspected may have been comparable in TV audience size to some of the biggest sporting events was the funeral of Pope John Paul, but he did not have specific details. He also noted that such news-driven TV events generally lack much commercial opportunity for advertisers.
Popular annual events like the Academy Awards or periodic biggies like this year's Live 8 concert often elicit media reports of viewership in the billions.
Those hyped figures often come from the organisers, however, and more often than not refer to audience reach, or the number of people able to watch the programme, not how many actually do.
With regard to Live 8, for example, some reports indicated an audience of more than 5 billion, but Britain's public broadcaster, the BBC, said it attracted a peak audience of 9.6 million viewers and an average of 6.6 million for the July 2 concerts while in the United States, MTV and VH1 averaged about 2.2 million for the live broadcasts.
The Oscars telecast has drawn more than 40 million viewers in the United States recently, but typically doesn't have as big an audience around the world for the live broadcast as might otherwise be expected because of time differences.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences still estimates a global audience of "several hundred million" though it now disavows the oft-repeated viewership figure of 1 billion.
Another common difficulty for programmers and advertisers is that the methodology for measuring TV audiences is different in many countries and impossible in some.
Initiative, whose clients include AOL, Johnson & Johnson and France Telecom, said it collects data on live broadcasts from 53 of the world's major TV-viewing markets. The firm is a unit of global ad conglomerate Interpublic Group.