It's Monday night, at the St. Petersburg Ale House, and at the bend of the bar by the front are Nicole Correa and Diana Nieves-Oake. They're watching Monday Night Football on some of the roughly three dozen flat screens spread around this place on Martin Luther King Street N.
Nicole is 41. Her parents are Cuban, but she was born in Connecticut and now she lives in St. Petersburg. She's a Bucs fan.
Diana is 37. She has a Puerto Rican dad and a Panamanian mom, and she lived in Seattle before she moved here. She's a Seahawks fan.
They're loud-cheering, score-checking, motorcycle-riding, double-tall-Captain-and-Coke-drinking football fans.
They're also part of a large and getting larger portion of the population in this country: watchers of sports on TV. NFL ratings so far this season are the highest they've been in 20 years.
"To understand the world's only superpower at the dawn of the new century," Michael MacCambridge writes in his history of the NFL, America's Game, "it is necessary to understand the National Football League. …"
And to understand why so many people are watching so much of it, this is a good place to be, here at the bend of the bar, sitting with Nicole and Diana and their double-talls.
The two of them are part of a key demographic.
And their habits say a lot about why we watch TV the way we do.
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Some numbers to start:
Over the past two years, at a time when TV ratings are mostly going down because audiences are getting more disparate and fragmented, with people having so many different options on different kinds of screens, the NFL's ratings have soared.
Ratings for baseball, basketball, hockey — up, up, up. But football long has been the king of televised sports, and it's still that way. The ratings for the sport, according to Nielsen, are spiking across the board: men, women, whites, blacks and Hispanics, the 18-24 demographic, the 18-49, the 24-54, teens and tweens, the elderly. Practically everybody is watching more of the NFL than they were two years ago, and in some cases stunningly more.
ESPN's ratings for Monday Night Football? They went up 20 percent from 2007 to 2008. So far this year they've gone up another 20 percent. The Monday night game earlier this year between the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings was the most-watched show in cable television history.
It's important to note here that the biggest ratings jump for the biggest sport in this country is with its biggest minority. This from Nielsen: Among homes where the head of the household is Hispanic, viewership is up 19 percent from last year, and with Hispanic females that number is up 32 percent from 2007.
That's people like Nicole and Diana. Which gets back to the bend of the bar.
Maybe, the two of them say, the ratings increase has to do with all the compelling story lines of late.
Brett Favre, for instance, is back from retirement, again, now playing for the Vikings, being his usual Wrangler-wearing, stubble-having, football-flinging self.
Or maybe it has to do with the immense popularity of fantasy football.
Or maybe it's because of the recession.
"Families can gather around the television, having a good time, and need not spend a dime," Jennifer Yarter, WFLA's research director, writes in an e-mail.
Take Diana. She used to have Bucs season tickets, but she gave them up this year. "They're expensive," she says.
So she's here, with Nicole and other friends, basically every Sunday, and most Monday nights, too.
Almost certainly, the uptick with Hispanics is a function of demographics, and the planned, pointed things the NFL is doing because of those demographics.
Hispanics have accounted for about half the country's population growth since 2000. They now make up approximately 15 percent of the population. By 2050, according to some estimates, they could be anything from a quarter to a third of the population.
In Texas, in Florida, in California, the names on the backs of the jerseys on high school football teams are Hispanic more and more, and that has not gone unnoticed by the people who work to sell the NFL to America as a whole.
"The numbers are clear," Peter O'Reilly, the NFL's director of marketing, says on the phone from New York. "We're focused very specifically on segments of the population that are critically important.
"Hispanics," he says, "have been a major focus of ours."
The NFL had the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers play a game in Mexico City in 2005. Since then, the league has signed deals with Spanish-language media outlets like ESPN Deportes, Univision, Telemundo and Fox Sports en Espanol. The popular video game "Madden NFL" came out in Spanish starting last year. Miami musicians Gloria and Emilio Estefan are new minority owners of the Dolphins. Part of that is to attract more Hispanic fans to the games. The team's press releases now come in Spanish as well as English.
Here's Juan Tornoe, an expert in marketing to Hispanics, on the phone from Austin, Texas: "This is the future. These kids are growing up in the U.S., following American traditions, and one of them is the NFL."
"We live in this world together, in this country together," says Lino Garcia, the general manager of ESPN Deportes. "And when there's something as important as the NFL, people say, 'There must be something to this NFL thing.' And they get hooked."
Adds the NFL's O'Reilly: "You see a generation of Hispanics whose parents or grandparents may not have been NFL fans. There's definitely something to the NFL serving as a bridge to our culture."
Case in point: The NFL's Hispanic fans, according to the league, are on average 10 to 11 years younger than the average fan overall.
A revealing statistical stairstep: According to research done by ESPN Deportes, 32 percent of Spanish-dominant Hispanics call themselves NFL fans, 51 percent of bilingual Hispanics do, and 69 percent of English-dominant Hispanics do.
There is the bridging of a cultural divide. The more American you get, the more football you watch; the more football you watch, the more American you get.
"Definitely," Diana says at the bar, "it's a way to bridge that gap between what's Hispanic and what's truly American."
• • •
The NFL is a marketing machine, calculating and effective, and that's been true for generations by now, and that no doubt has contributed to this ratings rise — but the league also is benefiting from something outside of its control, and much more widespread.
Remember. This isn't just Hispanics who are watching all this football. It's the old, the young, the white, the black.
The other day, Mark Cuban, the owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, attempted on his blog to answer the question: Why all the high TV ratings for sports, and why now?
Cuban, who became a billionaire 10 years ago after he co-founded Broadcast.com and then sold it to Yahoo, threw out the following theory: Sports are one of the few things that people still want to watch now, live, in large part because they want to be able to talk about them now, on Facebook, on Twitter, the virtual, instantaneous water cooler phenomenon that is social networking.
"High participation," he says, "equals high viewership."
The NFL, says Bob Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, has become "the one place where you can count on a good old-fashioned mass media audience where everyone is watching the same thing at the same time. You're not going to watch it three weeks later on Hulu."
TV execs call sports the ultimate reality show.
"It's the ultimate appointment viewing," says Leah LaPlaca, ESPN's vice president of programming, who calls the NFL "DVR-proof."
"People," she says, "want to be a part of the shared experience."
Everyone is trying to plug in, bridge the gap — think of it at this point as the big national Twitter feed — and one of the major ways to do that is to follow and contribute to the real-time conversation that now surrounds the communal, practically ritualistic watching of the NFL on Sundays from noon to midnight and then again with the Monday night capper of the weekend.
If this is true, and if there's something to Cuban's idea, Nicole and Diana start to look interesting less because of their ethnic backgrounds, or their parents' ethnic backgrounds, and more just because they're watching, and also because of how they're watching.
So here they are, Nicole and Diana, at the bend of the bar, cheering with others at the most violent tackles, ribbing the bartender they know so well they give him Christmas gifts, and checking stats and streaming on their phones video highlights from the same game they're watching.
And here's Diana's daughter, Sierra, who's 12 years old. She sits on a stool and gets score updates through Verizon text messages. She says she wants to have her own fantasy team starting next season.
And all around the bar, on a commercial for NFL.com, the league logo beats on the screens like a heart.