Why are so many more people watching pro football this year?
I teamed up with feature writer Michael Kruse last week to take a look at one interesting component in the National Football League's significant jump in ratings this season: A rise in Hispanic viewers.
But there's also been a jump in overall viewers. And when you ask the folks whose job involves telecasting the games about football’s recent popularity, they use the same line:
Sports is the ultimate reality TV show.
“It’s the ultimate appointment viewing,” said Leah LaPlaca, vice president of programming for ESPN, where viewership for the cable sportschannel’s first six Monday Night Football games were up between 18 and 22 percent from 2008 in every major male demographic category and every major age category. “People want to be part of the shared experienced. It’s DVR-proof.”
In other words, at a time when people are using digital video records to save their favorite CSI episode or Mad Men installment, football games and sporting events are the last programs many viewers insist on seeing live, as it happens.
Doesn’t hurt that the sport has seen some of its most compelling moments in a long while. Brett Favre leading the Minnesota Vikings to victory over his former Green Bay Packers scored the most-watched show in cable TV history.
Michael Vick’s return to play after his dog fighting scandal. The Dallas Cowboys’ debut in a glittering new $1.2-billion stadium. The hapless struggle of perpetually losing teams such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Washington Redskins.
Even when Monday Night Football aired against Game Four of baseball’s National League Championship Series on TBS Oct. 19, the Denver Broncos vs San Diego Chargers pigskin matchup drew more than twice the ratings.
The NFL’s popularity has also led to big ratings locally. At Tampa NBC affiliate WFLA-Ch. 8, ratings for viewers aged 25 to 54 – a group advertisers covet – is up 7 percent from 2008 for the first five Sunday NFL games. Ratings for adults aged 18 to 49 and total viewers are both up by 11 percent.
Jennifer Yarter, WFLA’s research director, blames the current recession. “In this recessionary age where people do not have discretionary income to attend many live sporting events, people will turn to their comfortable favorites – events like televised pro football games,” wrote Yarter in an email to the St. Petersburg Times. “Families can gather around the television, have a good time, and need not spend a dime.”
Ironically, Yarter also cites the poor play by the hometown Buccaneers as a possible boost to ratings for other teams’ games. When they play badly, she theorized, Tampa Bay area fans who hail from elsewhere – which is a great many – wind up rooting for teams from their previous hometowns.
Not so fast, say executives at WTVT-Ch. 13, where the Fox affiliate airs Buccaneers home games. They said the season’s first six games have attracted an average 41 percent of adults age 25 to 54 watching TV, just a 1-percent drop from the year before.
And while that isn’t the double-digit increases WFLA may be seeing from its network broadcasts, it isn’t much of a decline for a team experiencing the worst start in recent franchise history.
“In our world of high tech measurement, anything plus or minus 10 percent could be affected by prior year weather, the times of the games or the matchups,” said Bill Schnieder, general manager at WTVT. “From our perspective, we’re looking at 41 percent of the audience engaged. And we appreciate that level of audience.”