Football fans tuning into games in big numbers
RACHEL COHEN | 11/6/2009, 4:20 p.m.
NEW YORK (AP) -- Favre, Brady, Sanchez - and Tebow, too.
The modern American pastime of watching football on TV is surging in popularity this season, for both NFL and college games. With the economy still rough, tuning into games offers football fans cheap entertainment - and some intriguing story lines built around quarterbacks haven't hurt ratings, either.
"The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and there have been so many tremendous stories," said ESPN executive vice president John Wildhack.
NFL games have been watched by an average of 17.2 million viewers through eight weeks. That's the highest total at this point of the season since 1989, though comparisons to past years are imperfect because the number of potential viewers increases each year.
The average audience is up 15 percent from last season, the biggest one-year increase of the last two decades.
College games are drawing strong ratings, too - none more so than the SEC. The conference's games on CBS are averaging a 3.9 rating through nine weeks, up 39 percent from last year.
It's by far the highest rating at this point of the season since the network resumed broadcasting college football in 1996. The previous high was a 3.5 in '99.
Defending national champion Florida and Alabama are both undefeated, and, oh yeah, the Gators have this guy named Tim Tebow.
"Stories like that don't come along in college football all that often," CBS Sports president Sean McManus said of the Florida quarterback and 2007 Heisman Trophy winner.
That average rating could climb even higher after this Saturday's matchup, when No. 9 LSU plays at the third-ranked Crimson Tide.
"As long as Alabama and Florida keep winning, we're heading for quite a remarkable showdown in the SEC championship game," McManus said.
In the NFL, it all starts with Brett Favre. On Oct. 5, when his Minnesota Vikings beat the team he once led, the Green Bay Packers, and the game earned the highest rating in ESPN's 30-year history. Favre's return to Green Bay last weekend gave Fox its own ratings bonanza.
But Favre is hardly the only NFL quarterback providing drama this season, a year when paid attendance at games is down 2.4 percent so far. There's Tom Brady, back from injury; Mark Sanchez, the confident Jets rookie; Chicago's Jay Cutler and Denver's Kyle Orton, two starters traded for each other.
"Sunday Night Football" is averaging its largest audience at this point of the season in its four years on NBC, and that number will likely increase with this week's Cowboys-Eagles matchup.
Especially if it's a close game.
"We've all been blessed by just some terrific games," ESPN's Wildhack said. "You can create the best matchup - you think this schedule is great, that schedule is great. But it's when you get great games."
Back in the college ranks, Notre Dame has averaged 3.9 million viewers for the six games televised so far this season on NBC. That's up 15 percent from last year, according to the Nielsen Co. USC-Ohio State on Sept. 12 was the most-viewed college football game ever on ESPN and the highest-rated in 15 years.
Overall, college football ratings are up slightly on ESPN and ABC. Ratings for its "College GameDay" show have increased 13 percent from last year, an indication of the interest in the sport this season.
Wildhack said college football was once perceived as a mostly regional sport, but the interest is now truly national.
"We've got schools that are brand names," he said. "It attracts an audience regardless of where people live."