L.A.'s NFL Fans Boost TV Ratings

Times Staff Writers

The team formerly known as the Los Angeles Raiders is in San Diego, home of the team formerly known as the Los Angeles Chargers, readying to participate in the Super Bowl, a game that last year featured the team formerly known as the Los Angeles Rams.

It is the grand finale to a pro football season that witnessed the debut of the Houston Texans, who could have been the Los Angeles Californians before Houston rallied to outbid L.A. for the NFL's 32nd -- and last? -- expansion franchise.

So here Los Angeles sits, its Coliseum and Rose Bowl empty on autumn Sundays for eight years running, the city the NFL forgot.

Snubbed again and again, residents have responded by pulling up a chair, cracking open a few cold ones and drowning their sorrows in a fog of televised images of what used to be theirs. Eight years after the Rams and Raiders raced one another to see whose moving vans could squeal out of town first, Los Angeles remains obsessed with the NFL. It's a national condition, of course; the NFL rules the airwaves from coast to coast, and has for years. But in a region that currently boasts the reigning World Series and NBA champions, the average NFL telecast in Los Angeles in 2002 drew more viewers than the average Angel and Laker telecasts ... combined.

During the 2002 regular season, NFL games on ABC, CBS and Fox drew a 9.5 rating in the Los Angeles market. Since each rating point represents 53,542 households, that means games were seen in an average of more than 500,000 homes locally. Laker games drew a 6.0 rating and Angel telecasts 2.4.

This is Dodger territory, or so the stereotype has held for the last 40 years. Yet in 2002, Dodger telecasts garnered a local rating of 3.3 -- barely a third of the NFL figure.

Hockey? The hometown Kings and Mighty Ducks pulled in local ratings of 1.1 and 0.4. A sky-cam slow-motion replay of "Monday Night Football" personality John Madden riding a Zamboni would draw better numbers than that -- and might be a ratings booster the Kings and Ducks should seriously consider.

To its advantage, nearly all of the NFL's games are on weekends. And compared to baseball, basketball and hockey, there are limited opportunities for viewing since each team plays only 16 regular-season games in a span of 17 weeks.

But what about NASCAR, which, by most accounts, is wildly popular? While it earns ratings of 13 or 14 in such places as Greensboro and Charlotte, N.C., it averaged a 3.0 this year in L.A.

Neither NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue nor the league's head of broadcasting, Dennis Lewin, said they are surprised by Los Angeles' numbers.

"L.A. has a great tradition of football from years when they had two teams there," Tagliabue said Friday during a news conference in San Diego. "There has always been great interest in football in Los Angeles."

Added Lewin: "Look at the tradition of [L.A.'s] college teams. And this season they had the Heisman Trophy winner."

Yet even Carson Palmer couldn't beat the NFL in Los Angeles. When Palmer led USC to victory over Iowa in the Jan. 2 Orange Bowl, the game, a major event in Los Angeles, drew a local rating of 14.2. However, three of the four NFL wild-card games the following weekend fared better. San Francisco's controversial victory over the Giants on Fox earned a 19.9 rating, followed by a 15.1 for Atlanta's lopsided win over Green Bay on ABC.

The Atlanta-Green Bay game, considered a prime-time telecast because it aired after 8 p.m. in the East, drew a higher rating than any prime-time show in Los Angeles that week.

Sports consultant David Carter, former advisor to the L.A. City Council's Community Redevelopment Agency, cited two reasons for the NFL's popularity in L.A.

"One is the overall brilliance of the NFL as a business model," he said. "They've got a great product, they know how to market it and they realize what it takes to generate interest.

"During the final two weeks of the season, what did we have, a dozen teams with a chance of making the playoffs?"

The other reason, Carter said, is the demographics of the Los Angeles market.

"We have transplants who tune in to watch the teams from the cities they came from," he said.

Never mind that millions of Southland kids, now pushing into their teenage years, have never seen an NFL game in person. The last games played locally were held in December 1994. The Rams were quarterbacked by Chris Miller, the Raiders by Jeff Hostetler. Current Raider quarterback Rich Gannon, then a pup of 29, was out of football, having been released by the Washington Redskins -- and not picked up by anyone -- early in the year.

Yet eight years after the Rams and the Raiders moved to St. Louis and Oakland, the NFL in Los Angeles remains recession-proof. The Raiders continue to be massively popular in L.A. -- last week's victory over Tennessee in the AFC championship game drew a 24.5 Nielsen rating on Channel 2 with a 44% share of the audience. That is the highest rating for Channel 2 in nearly two years, since the Grammy Awards drew a 26.1 on Feb. 1, 2001.

A 24.5 rating means the game was seen in 1.31 million households. Mike Kincaid, general sales manager for Channels 2 and 9, said it is estimated that there are an average of two viewers of NFL football in each household. So, it is estimated that 2.62 million watched the Raiders beat the Titans.

During the 17-week regular season, Channel 2 carried the Raiders nine times. Those games averaged a 10.6 rating, up from 10.3 for nine Raider games in 2001.

Don Corsini, president and general manager of Channels 2 and 9, said the Raiders' ratings in L.A. have increased 36% over the last four years.

In each of the last four years, NFL telecasts have outstripped prime-time programming in Los Angeles. In 2002, the NFL beat prime-time programs, 9.5 to 6.9.

And while national ratings for "Monday Night Football" have slipped in recent years, Los Angeles remains hooked. For 17 games in 2002, "Monday Night Football" averaged a 13.2 rating locally, making L.A. the program's 20th-ranked market -- ahead of Boston, home of the 2001 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots; Atlanta, home of mesmerizing quarterback Michael Vick; and New York. Boston, Atlanta and New York drew respective ratings of 12.3, 11.3 and 8.7.

Because of its size, Los Angeles ranked second behind Chicago in number of viewers.

The popularity of "Monday Night Football" has spawned a profitable postgame show for local Channel 7, "Monday Night Live." Hosted by Rob Fukuzaki, the show averaged a 4.3 rating in 2002 and attracted scores of enthusiastic fans to its broadcast home at the ESPN Zone in Anaheim, where, Channel 7 General Manager Arnie Kleiner said, "The line is always out the door."

Channel 7's only local shows to fare better are the station's news programs.

Overall, Los Angeles' 9.5 NFL rating was better than New York's 9.3 -- and New York has L.A. beaten on the NFL franchise front, two to zero.

Twice this season when New York teams were featured on "Monday Night Football," Los Angeles produced a better rating than New York. On Oct. 28, when the Giants played the Philadelphia Eagles, L.A. beat New York, 11.7 to 11.5. On Dec. 2, when the Jets played the Raiders, L.A. won again, 15.1 to 14.1.

As for the Super Bowl, which will be televised on ABC, nothing compares. Worldwide, it will be broadcast in 220 countries in 28 languages to an audience that has been estimated at 130 million for each of the last 10 years. The game's national rating has been higher than 40.0 in 30 of the last 31 years.

Los Angeles sports officials continue to lobby for an NFL franchise, citing the area's television numbers. But could the impressive TV ratings work against their bid? If the NFL can draw such an audience without a franchise in Los Angeles, might the league be reluctant to tamper with the status quo?

"Not in any way, shape or form do the good ratings lessen our interest or pursuit to place in a team in Los Angeles," the NFL's Tagliabue said.

CBS Sports President Sean McManus believes NFL ratings in Los Angeles would be higher with the presence of a local team.

"Oakland has been such a good story this year, and I think that's helpful to the L.A. market," he said. "But there is no substitute for a home team and the rating you can generate in a home market if that team is playing competitive football."

Therein lies the key, in Carter's view: To succeed in Los Angeles, an NFL team must be competitive.

"L.A. will not embrace a team unless it's a winner," Carter said.

David Hill, the chairman of Fox Sports and an Australian, agrees.

"I've only lived here for 10 years," he said, "but I consider myself an Angeleno. And we love winners."

With or without more NFL expansion or an existing team relocating to Los Angeles, that is unlikely to change. As it is, with the Raiders and Buccaneers and Titans and Eagles available most autumn Sundays, Los Angeles can get its football fix with the push of a remote-control button.

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