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The Decline and Fall of Sports Ratings
By RICHARD SANDOMIR


own. That is where the ratings of most major sports events went in the past year. Whether it was the World Series, the N.B.A. finals, all four Grand Slam golf tournaments or the recently completed United States Open, network ratings tumbled.

The declines, in some cases, were huge and led to record ratings lows, and they could lead to networks' slowing the growth in payments for future deals.

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With the National Basketball Association gone from NBC, ratings for the finals on ABC this year dropped by more than a third. Shaun Micheel's victory at the P.G.A. Championship in August sent CBS's rating down 38 percent, after ratings for Jim Furyk's triumph at the United States Open fell by almost half on NBC.

The prime-time United States Open women's tennis final, created in 2001 as a Venus and Serena Williams perennial, dropped 52 percent to a 2.5 for CBS last Saturday when one Belgian, Justine Henin-Hardenne, defeated another, Kim Clijsters. (Each rating point equals 1.07 million TV households.)

It has been a weird year; a confluence of factors put a larger-than-usual dent in the viewership of major sports. The war in Iraq drew viewers away in the spring, especially from the N.C.A.A. men's basketball tournament (the championship game rating fell 16 percent). Rain shortened the Daytona 500 and caused days' worth of delays at the United States Open, which also suffered from Pete Sampras's retirement and injuries to the Williams sisters. Tiger Woods was a factor in only one of golf's majors, and the ratings drop-off ranged from 7 percent (the British Open) to 44 percent (the United States Open).

The N.B.A.'s decision to shift the bulk of its games to cable, on ESPN and TNT, meant lower ratings for ABC, which did not build the type of audience NBC had because it carried far fewer games.

The oases of strength in sports broadcasting continue to be the National Football League (ABC's Buccaneers-Eagles game was the highest-rated Monday night game in two years) and Nascar, which has benefited greatly from moving its main races from cable to NBC and Fox. When rain curtailed the Daytona 500 last February, Fox said it was on its way to posting its highest rating in years.

Still, the overall direction of sports ratings is clear. "If you look at sports ratings over the past decade, they've declined in general," said Ken Schanzer, the president of NBC Sports. "The question is whether the amount of the decline this year is the start of a trend."

Artie Bulgrin, ESPN's senior vice president for research, said this year's declines were accelerated by a key segment of viewers focused on the war in Iraq.

"The audience that paid closest attention to the news, post-9/11, was males 18 to 34, and they were affected for a period that forced sports to take a back seat," he said.

He added: "It's misleading to look at ratings for selected events and conclude that a negative trend is happening. Sports have never been healthier."

Still, sports ratings are not immune to the erosion throughout broadcast television, a trend linked to cable and satellite TV, the Internet, home video and other options.

Ten years ago, the World Series had a 17.3 rating; last year it fell to 11.9. The N.C.A.A. championship game produced a 22.2 rating 10 years ago; this year it dipped to 12.6.

Only eight years ago, the leading prime-time network program, "Seinfeld," averaged a 20.4 rating; this past season the top show, "C.S.I.," generated a 16.3

"Ratings are smaller than ever, and the sports world is the exaggerated tip of it," said Peter Gardiner, chief media officer of the advertising agency Deutsch Inc.

Sports are watched differently than they were during the era of the three-network universe. The bonds of loyalty to a nationally televised sport can be broken more easily because there is so much else to do and perhaps less patience. If Sampras is not playing Andre Agassi, viewers may flip to "Sex and the City."


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There are different ways to view the decline in ratings for virtually everything but the Super Bowl. Bulgrin said that from 1996 to 2001, Nielsen Media Research figured that the average rating for nationally televised sports fell 10 percent, a bigger drop than for any other segment of the TV audience. On the other hand, for the year ended in June 2002, national sports viewing rose 2 percent, partly because more sports are being carried on television, especially in the ESPN empire.

"We're focused on the aggregate, not the rating for any one telecast,'' said George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports. "Our viewership is up.''

David Hill, chairman of the Fox Television Sports Group, analyzes his sports stable for how it performs relative to prime-time programming. By that measuring stick, he said, "The World Series is stronger than ever."

He said that last year's 11.9 World Series rating was 63 percent better than the prime-time, season-long average of ABC, CBS and NBC. In 2001, that advantage was 107 percent. In both cases, the gap was greater than in 1975, when the World Series rating of 28.8 was only 52 percent better than the prime-time average of NBC's competitors.

For advertisers, sports remains the strongest avenue to reach men 18 to 34, a demographic group that is still forming its brand loyalties and is especially valuable to companies marketing themselves to sports viewers.

Tony Ponturo, Anheuser-Busch's vice president for global media, said: "The stability of that demographic is very comforting to us. It's more of a male field. The female viewer who has other choices is trending away."

Still, the overall fragmentation of the TV sports audience and the lower ratings are likely to lead to a slowing of the growth in network payments to various sports organizations, experts said. One sign was CBS's refusal to bid on the 2010 and 2012 Olympics and Fox's $1.3 billion offer, which fell far short of the $2.2 billion being paid by General Electric, NBC's parent.

"There will be a correction," said Sean McManus, the president of CBS Sports. "You've seen it in the N.B.A. deal, which had a marginal increase. The N.H.L. would be happy with a small increase. Our business model is projecting lower rights fees."

McManus added that while ratings are down for most sports, advertising demand remains strong for marquee events. Yet, he said, "Just because advertising rates are increasing doesn't mean you're covering your rights fees and production costs.''

Neal Pilson, an industry consultant, said the industry "self-regulates and compensates'' for excessive payments.

Some leagues could follow the N.B.A.'s lead by selling more games to cable outlets, which derive fees from advertisers and subscribers. But Hill cautioned that there was a risk of losing the broad distribution of a traditional network. A sport that goes that route, he said, "risks taking the poisoned chalice of money over the future potential growth of the sport."
 

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Da Forehand:

Interesting article and not unexpected. Ratings on individual events are always going to fluctuate depending upon who is playing that particular match or game. But with the proliferation of sports on TV, the proliferation of channels to watch (lots more choices these days) and the declining intellectual level of the average viewer, most of whom have the attention span of a house fly, ratings were bound to come down. Perhaps more than anything, this is the result of the TV remote control now being grafted on to the hands of most men.

As some wag once said, "Men don't want to know what's on TV. They want to know what else is on TV." Everything in life, but especially TV, has conspired to shorten the intellectual level of the average Joe.

Now, what does that little red slogan under your posts mean specifically? What are you saying about people who are NOT Williams fans. Because I wasn't a Steffi Graf fan, either. Great player, but I never liked one little thing about her.
 

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I think it's alot of factors. The American press made
a big deal about how the US OPEN 2003 is lacking any
real stars this year; and the perception to the general
non- tennishead didn't hold very well. There was also
the fact that the rain screwed up tv viewing for the
entire week!!!
 

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What is at the root of this decline in sports ratings, and media generally? The simple answer is that they aren't sports, news documentaries, situation comedies etc. anymore; they are corporate marketing tools, and people are getting sick of it. Quick- cuts, dragging the camera on the ground, cheesy rock music blaring, unfocused zoom-in close-ups, exploitation of women--what is it, sports, "Cops," the "news," one of their increasingly hysterical commercials? Who cares anymore; they were all given exactly the same dreadful, assembly-line treatment.
This article confirms a lot of things and also gives some depth to the earlier reports about the big drop of this year's U.S. Open. There are finally starting to be some consequences to the corporate world's takeover of the formerly intrinsic national culture, to its own commercial, etc. ends, no matter what anyone else wants. At some point during the '80s, I suppose it was, these people decided that they now knew and understood everything, called it "demographics" even though it isn't the way they do it, and started to manipulate things that had once been done coherently. This is the result--they are driving people away.
I find TV coverage of sports more and more unwatchable every year, and so I think many others must, too. They are sapping all the atmosphere out of every sport, and replacing it with a "TV production" sameness that is irritating and disconnected. At some point, they decided that everything was "boring"--anything that took more than a few seconds of air time or that gave more than a few seconds of silence, suddenly panicked them, and they jump immediately to some noise or visual flash to distract themselves from the peacefulness. Every sport has "personality" hype, slow-zoom-close-ups, cuts, excessive replays, close-ups of players' faces rather than shots of the field, until finally it is such a nervous overhype, that it has no atmosphere as a "sports drama," but only the same God-damned TV show, over and over. They hype only certain personalities, not the sport generally, then are surprised when ratings drop off when those certain people, Tiger Woods, etc., are not there. These horrible "profiles" made up of no information, only the same quick-cut pics, the same background music, God... It is, overall, the "vulgarizing" effect of the corporate-hype approach, as opposed to anyone who knows and loves these things, trying to popularize them.
The interesting comment that all TV is slipping, not only sports, really tells it: it is their whole system. They themselves fragmented the TV audience (and our whole society) by shifting programming to cable, then further fragmenting it to multiple cable channels, just so people would have to pay more for increased cable subscriptions--they are ripping our social fabric apart so they can charge us for it! These people have no writing talent at all, and don't even connect with people anymore, from their yachts. Then of course, these totally incoherent, "cover yourself" comments from them on the situation: The one near the end who "explains" that the World Series rating drops are actually good--used to be 28.8 and now 11.9, oh this is great--and this standard crap how the ratings are dropping because there "is so much else to do" or because of the war in Iraq (what does that mean?). This asshole near the end who claims that women are leaving sports on TV because they "(have) other choices." What--males don't have other choices? What does that mean? You wonder how things got so screwed up? No, male, how about: we've given up, (if that was even the case) because all we ever get from you people is hostility. The athletes who become really popular--from Annika Sorenstam to the Williamses to Capriati, among all their fans--are never the type the media pays any attention to, unless forced, and even then they don't cover it right.
This is way too complicated a subject to be covered here, but I know that I, like many who love baseball, have come to hate baseball, ONLY because I can't stand the horrible way they cover it on TV and can't watch it anymore, and I know I am not alone.
By the way, I would love to know the ratings from the fabulous Capriati-Henin match, if anyone has them, to know if that escaped the slide. There are both particular and general reasons why things are like this.
 

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TV has elevated almost all sports, almost all events, to the same level. The US Open gets no better coverage than the least important football or basketball game.

When everything is elevated to the same level, everything is reduced to the same level. When everything is made important, nothing winds up being important. Viewers now just skip to the next "event" offered to them. Television pretty much started this with the O.J. Simpson case, elevating a fairly unimportant murder trial into a national obsession. Consequently, TV viewers in America got caught up in the war against Iraq in the first week, but later many of them were turning it off to watch NCAA basketball or "American Idol." Their own soldiers were fighting and dying, but people quickly got bored with the war and moved on.

In some ways, that is more frightening than the war itself.
 

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In women's tennis, the ratings have gone down for at least the last 5 slam finals. From the same event the previous year.
And attendance at the WTA Championships is far from impressive.
In the U.S., tennis is a declining sport. I don't see how it can be argued the other way.
 

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goldenlox said:
In women's tennis, the ratings have gone down for at least the last 5 slam finals. From the same event the previous year.
And attendance at the WTA Championships is far from impressive.
In the U.S., tennis is a declining sport. I don't see how it can be argued the other way.

Agreed. Even with the Williameses respectable ratings, there was no excuse for the piss poor attendance at the Championships. I truly believe that a lack of a sophiscated marketing plan is hurting the tour. They keep saying that there is a advetising campaign going on? Where? The ATP was all in everyones face with the TMS Cup in Houston Commercials, advertisements for the masters-series, and everyting else. Where in hell are the wta commercials?
 

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There's alot to be said about the fractured audience. The city of Detroit did not get cable until the late 1980s. I was so happy (and grateful) whenever they broadcast the Tigers on Saturday afternoon because there was something on TV other than Sir Graves Ghastly and his B&W movies from the 30s, 40s and 50s to watch. Now you can take for granted your opportunites to watch a sporting event. Really nothing is "Must see TV" anymore. And to think, I'd rush home from school just so I could see the end of "The Big Showdown", or make plans around what I wanted to watch on TV because there were no VCRs. There is no air of excitement around sporting events anymore.
 
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