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The musings of a Detroit-area sportswriter in the digital age.

Monday, January 10, 2011

It's the drama, dummy

It seems every week, another sporting event has turned in spectacular ratings. It began last January, when the Saints-Colts Super Bowl turned in the most viewed television show in American history, meaning something finally surpassed the 1983 "M*A*S*H" finale, averaging 106.5 million viewers.
The next month, it was the gold-medal game of the Vancouver Olympics between the United States and Canada. Those were the most watched Games since the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics.
In the summer months, the World Cup was up 41 percent from the 2006 Cup. Weeks before that, the Chicago Blackhawks delivered the largest hockey-viewing audience in 36 years as they reclaimed the Stanley Cup after 49 years apart.
Butler's Cinderella run to the NCAA tournament championship game was the highest the Big Dance has seen in more than 10 years and 36 percent higher than the year previous.
The list continues ...
A Time report from August sites a Horizon Media report which found that 13 TV programs in the year prior had drawn more than 30 million viewers. Eleven of those were sporting events, and one of the other shows had a lead-in from the Super Bowl.
The reports goes on to list the preceding events from earlier this year and their accumen. But the trend has continued. In the last couple weeks, the NBA's five-game slate on Christmas Day earned the best numbers for the league on that day. In addition, the NBA's ratings are up 30 percent this season over last year. And that doesn't count the numbers from the LeBron free-agent watch and subsequent "Decision."
NBC's "Sunday Night Football" was the most-viewed NFL schedule in more than 10 years and the Rose Bowl on ESPN saw the third-largest audience in cable television history.
Also on New Year's Day, the Winter Classic, which the NHL moved to primetime from its typical afternoon slot to better accompany poor weather in Pittsburgh, was actually just so-so. But because they didn't drown in the considerable amount of rain falling in the area, the league is considering it a win and might now move the game to primetime every season.
The first thing people point to when discussion television ratings is the fact the country may or may not still be in a recession, meaning out-of-work Americans have more time to watch TV since they're out of work. False. Sports, for the most part, take place during off-peak hours. (I should know, I've been working those hours for some time now.)
High definition TVs make the games more attractive, and Time sites a Nielsen report that indicates sports ratings in HD are up 21 percent. Well, that's easy to believe. Have you seen football in HD?! How about hockey? Can't really argue with that.
Three of the four reigning champions in major pro sports (as of August, when the Time piece was written) resided from the three largest media markets in the nation: Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. That could have a bit to do with it.
However, the biggest reason, also as Time notes, is the fact all these matchups have great storylines. The ones you get tired of hearing of, especially during the Super Bowl. That game featured the beaten and battered city of New Orleans rising from the ashes for the franchise's first championship. The Olympics had the upstart Americans vs. Sidney Crosby and the favored Canadians (led by Red Wings coach Mike Babcock and GM Steve Yzerman), which surpassed the previous best Olympics that had the drama of the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding fiasco.
The Blackhawks' run to the Cup was a huge drought filled and, as for Butler, everybody loves an underdog. I don't know those ratings would've held for an MSU-Duke championship game.
The NFL perpetually picks the better (I hesitate to say best because some turn out to be duds) games for its Sunday and Monday night series on NBC and ESPN, respectively.
The World Cup had to be helped by the U.S.-England opening-round matchup and the fact (I've heard this really) soccer is the world's biggest sport.
The NBA's Christmas bonanza was spurred on by the sheer girth of the slate, five games in one day with a captive audience! Having LeBron James vs. Kobe Bryant, the game's two biggest stars on the same floor, that's going to draw. Oh, and not to mention the fact LeBron's free-agent escapades over the summer, which made him persona non Grata in the Midwest. James' return to Cleveland in early December drew quite well, especially in the city he spurned. The game's new villain has even claimed recently he doesn't have an effect on the numbers. I beg to differ. What's TNT's slogan again? "We know drama." You sure do.
I wouldn't be surprised to learn tomorrow the NFL's wild-card playoff games set some sort of record, as both Super Bowl teams were knocked out and comeback sensation Michael Vick's run at redemption was put on hold.
In a world of advanced technology, it's not just what you watch these games on, it's the interest behind it. Nobody's going to watch a game that looks good but has no interesting subplot. Well, OK, they are if it's the NFL or college football (because football is the biggest sport in America), but it's not going to be the record-setting audiences we've been seeing this year.
It's been a great year for back stories in sports, hopefully they can keep it up, whether the league or network is picking the teams or it's just good, old-fashioned luck of the draw.


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