Football' takes a hit
Americans turning to other escapes from war news
By Kevin Downey
The first game of "Monday Night Football" this season gave ABC every reason to think that the 30-year-old franchise was heading for a rebound after years of audience declines.
Then came the terrorist attacks.
Regular primetime viewing has largely come back, even with the news cut-ins, but "Monday Night Football" appears not to be.
Last week's audience tumbled 13 percent below last year’s season average, and that came on top of a nearly 8 percent drop for the Sept. 24 game, the first after the attacks forced a one-week postponement.
Although last night's game was up 2 percent from last week, based on overnight household ratings, the St. Louis Rams' 35-0 win over the Detroit Lions still fell well below last year's average rating.
"In the short-term, the country is still definitely feeling the aftereffects of the Sept. 11 tragedy," says Don Hinchey, director of creative services at the Bonham Group, a sports-business consulting firm based in Denver.
"'Monday Night Football' can be part of the solution because it represents escapism. In times of stress, people need that. But people are still not quite back to their normal routine."
The recent declines are especially striking when compared to the season opener.
On the day before the terrorist attacks, "Monday Night Football" was watched by 19.8 million people, or about 7 percent more than watched last season, on average.
The falloff is almost certainly a reflection of ongoing viewer disinterest in football in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks and the networks' continuing coverage.
Whether viewers come back to "Monday Night Football" remains to be seen, of course.
But the first game rebound proved at least that there’s still life in what is increasingly seen as an old man’s sport.
Solid coverage of the games and add-ons, like tossing Dennis Miller’s humor into the mix, proved that "Monday Night Football" was not content to watch its audience dwindle.
"They are definitely trying to tap into the younger audience and recognize that they have to rejuvenate the viewing audience," says Hinchey. "That’s an ongoing thing, but the NFL is particularly sensitive to it."
If in coming weeks viewership does bounce back, it will represent a sorely needed comeback.
"Monday Night Football’s" ratings have dropped 22 percent in the past five years.
That far outpaces the 8.7 percent drop in primetime that ABC has had in the same time period. And it’s a drop that outpaces steep declines for football on the other broadcast networks.
Although CBS’s rating for NFL is up 8 percent so far this season, for example, its national games were down to a 12.1 rating last season. That’s a drop of 12 percent from 1996, when NBC still had the NFL.
Fox’s coverage this season is down almost 9 percent, which is on top of a 16 percent drop for its national games since 1996.The long-term problem for football, and for "Monday Night Football" in particular, comes down to young viewers and their collective appetite for newer sports.
There is no shortage of interest in sports, in general.
A report by Magna Global USA found that men spend about 164 hours a year watching sports compared to 147 only two years ago. Women now watch about 83 hours per year compared to 77 hours in 1998.
But the attention of viewers is being splintered as never before.
"We have an explosion in the number of channels and the number of sports options," says Hinchey.
"Women’s sports are on, there’s more golf, and there are the X-Games.
"Those sports weren’t there thirty years ago when ‘Monday Night Football’ had a lock on the Monday time slot and a virtual lock on a segment of the market."
October 9, 2001 © 2001 Media Life
-Kevin Downey is a staff writer for Media Life.