Famously Un-Retired Athletes Looking For Higher TV Sports Ratings

Any still-famous celebrity athlete coming out of retirement can influence TV ratings -- but probably not that much.

On the same day when there was news that last year's NFL MVP Tom Brady, injured during his Patriots win on Sunday, would be lost for the season, came rumors of Lance Armstrong returning to professional road cycling. Those rumors are now fact: Armstrong has confirmed he's coming back.

Sports cable network Versus' ratings for its Tour de France three-week race took a noticeable dip after Armstrong retired in July 2005, after his took his record seventh victory. We can surely expect ratings improvement in Versus' coverage of the 22-day major bike race. But, in reality, how much?

Remember this: The TdF is only three weeks of TV programming for Versus -- not an entire year. Not only that, but viewers don't get much TV time for cyclists like Armstrong, unless it's mountain stage or a time trial. That could be a total of six days at best - depending on the configuration of the race in a given year.



Perhaps Versus might add some days of coverage in other races. The initial benefit could come next February, when Versus again airs the fast-growing U.S. based stage race, the Tour of California.

Overall, though, TV coverage of Armstrong won't be that of a Michael Jordan coming out of retirement to join up with the Washington Wizards. Reportedly Armstrong would return for just five stage races -- including European-based races, Dauphiné Libéré and Paris-Nice, as well as another U.S. weekly stage race, Tour of Georgia.

These days Versus doesn't look at road cycling as a growing part of the network. It has higher-rated sports like the NHL, for example. At other times of the year, much of its emphasis is on mixed martial arts and ultimate fighting programming -- not to mention prime-time bull-riding -- all with the hopes of grabbing younger male viewers. Cycling has been a sport mostly for older male viewers, not the key young demographic the network is looking for.

It works both ways. While Armstrong's return might not give Versus all that it hopes for, Tom Brady's season-ending injury won't send ratings much lower at NFL TV networks CBS, NBC, ESPN, and Fox. The NFL has a more diverse group of high-profile athletes -- as well as more U.S. televised games - to take up the slack.

Big-name, big sport athletes are big news when coming out of retirement. Michael Jordan had a nice rating bump when he came back. But the novelty didn't last, especially when he returned as an older -- still good, but perhaps, not great -- player on an improving, but not great, team in the Washington Wizards.

Armstrong has elected to spin his wheels again, touting the success of Olympics athletes like 41-year-old swimmer Dara Torres. Armstrong has a message as well -- an even bigger international effort to combat cancer.

But he -- as well as Versus -- will need the wind at their backs.

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