NEW YORK: Cable and satellite TV providers in the US claim that sports viewership figures, outside of prime-time events, are not high enough to justify the fees they are being charged for such programming by sports channels.

Data from market researcher Nielsen indicate that just 4% of households watch sports on TV, and that less than 3% choose to watch their local teams play in the National Basketball Association, a figure that drops to 2% for teams in the National Hockey League.

But figures from SNL Kagan, the media research firm, show that sports channels typically account for almost 20% of the fees paid by cable and satellite operators and have risen 113% over the past decade.

The Wall Street Journal reported that cable and satellite TV operators have used data from set-top boxes to create algorithms that help them gauge customer engagement with sports programming, including whether they tune in for home team games and if so for how long.

The results inform decisions about whether or not to add sports networks and pass the fees charged on to all their subscribers.

One casualty of this new approach has been the network set up by the Houston baseball and basketball teams and which it had wanted to be a part of a basic digital cable package. While Comcast carries their games, AT&T and DirecTV have declined to do so.

In a statement, AT&T said it would like to make the channel available "but the proposed cost is not fair to pass to all of our customers across Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas, especially based upon our subscribers' historical lack of viewership of Rockets and Astros games".

A recent survey for CouponCabin found that almost half of American adults thought cable TV generally was not worth the money they were paying but most continued to subscribe, with sports fans being particularly reluctant to give up.

While viewership of other content on pay TV has fallen, in part because of online video outlets such as Netflix, sports viewing has remained broadly consistent and 97% of it, said Nielsen, was watched live in 2012.

But viewing habits are changing, with younger fans  accustomed to accessing services that stream games online.

"Eventually we are going to have to figure out a way to get to a world where, if a fan wants to watch a game on whatever device that is that they want to watch it on, we have to be able to provide that to them," said Chris Schlosser, vice president of digital media for Major League Soccer.

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal; additional content by Warc staff