By Keith Weir
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - The women's figure skating competition at the Winter Olympics has a special place in the hearts of viewers and the television executives who spend hundreds of millions of dollars buying the rights to the Games.
Underlining the importance of the sport, U.S. broadcaster NBC has two separate commentary teams and crews working on it.
One handles live programming on its NBCSN subscription channel and the other produces a package of highlights screened in evening prime time on its main network.
"It's one of the crown jewels of the Winter Olympic sports. It's great for NBC, NBCSN, and it's weather proof," said NBC Olympics Executive Producer Jim Bell.
With American medal contender Gracie Gold to skate on Wednesday and Thursday, the shows should provide a further boost to what has been a positive Games for NBC.
"Viewers love the personalities, these 20-year-old girls going out there, it really resonates with them," said Brad Adgate, research director with media services agency Horizon Media in New York.
"Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding took it to another level," he added, referring to the soap-style plotline in 1994 when an associate of Harding's husband tried to knobble rival Kerrigan with a hammer blow to the knee.
The two nights of that 1994 competition rank among the 20 most watched sports events in U.S. television history. The rest of the list is made up of various Super Bowls down the years.
For older viewers, the affection for figure skating dates back to Peggy Fleming winning America's sole gold of the 1968 Games.
"Baby boomers have always looked fondly on figure skating from that point on," he said.
It is not just an American phenomenon. When South Korean Kim Yuna won in Vancouver in 2010 more than half of the country is believed to have tuned in on television.
NBC has been drawing ratings of around 25 million for its evening shows rounding up the main action from the day in Sochi -- nine hours ahead of New York time.
Those viewing figures are ahead of the average of 21 million that it attracts for its Sunday NFL coverage.
NBC, owned by Comcast Corp, expects to make a profit out of these Games after former owners GE reported a loss of $223 million on Vancouver in 2010 when the effects of the financial crisis depressed advertising spending.
NBC spent $775 million on the Sochi rights and its production costs add around $100 million to the bill.
Adgate points out that the Olympics is the only major sports event where women make up more than half of the viewers -- the figure is around 56-57 percent -- adding to its appeal to advertisers seeking a wider audience.
"Figure skating is the most popular of all the sports in the Games," said Kevin Collins, a senior vice president with U.S. media agency Initiative.
"It's skewed towards a family audience, with a female focus," he added.
Household goods company Procter & Gamble, an Olympics sponsor, is one of the companies that have tapped into that female interest with Games-time advertising on the theme of "Thank You, Mom".
"Many of our brands sponsor Olympic figure skaters, whose grace and determination inspire everyone who watches the Olympic Winter Games," P&G said in a statement.
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(Editing by Peter Rutherford)