The NFL's Return to Los Angeles May Not Shake Up the Ratings

Impact of the Rams' Move Will Be Felt Beyond the Tube

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NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Credit: Via Wikimedia Commons
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After a 21-year drought, the NFL is returning to Los Angeles, the country's No. 2 media market and a nexus of all things showbiz. And while the Rams start packing their gear to make the trip from St. Louis to the Southland, the league's TV partners can look forward to the ratings boost that will come with representation in the massive DMA.

Or maybe not. While a hometown rooting interest should boost the NFL's L.A. Nielsen ratings, it's been so long since a team has planted a flag in the sprawling metropolis that any long-term prognostications are a matter of sheer guesswork. The NFL's hegemonic thrall over the TV landscape is a relatively recent phenomenon, but a little number crunching and a look at recent viewership trends suggest that an L.A. team might not necessarily have an outsized impact on the ratings fundamentals.

First things first. St. Louis is a mid-tier market, ranking 21st with a pool of 1.22 million TV households, accounting for a little more than 1% of the country's overall TV penetration. Last season, relatively few residents tuned in to watch the woeful Rams, which put up the sixth-lowest local deliveries with an average 17.9 household rating, which translates to just 218,000 homes. For the sake of argument, should the Rams secure the same rating in their new home market, they'd be reaching just shy of 1 million households (980,000), which is almost exactly four-and-a-half times the size of the average St. Louis audience, based on L.A.'s 5.49 million TV homes.

But a net gain of some 762,000 households is about as good as it gets. Outside of Boston, where Patriots fandom is compulsory, major market teams generally don't put up disproportionately huge TV numbers. The Giants and Jets last season averaged a combined 12.6 rating, which translates to some 930,000 homes in a DMA with 7.37 million TV households. Representing the No. 3 market, the Chicago Bears averaged a weekly draw of 957,000 homes. Even the Pats, which boast a stellar 35.5 rating in their home market, only average around 855,000 homes per game -- a robust figure for a town with 2.41 million TV homes, but a drop in the bucket when compared to the 15.6 million homes Brady and Belichick reached in their eight nationally broadcast games.

The million-household-ceiling pattern holds true for all 32 NFL franchises. Football-crazed Dallas put up a sturdy 31.6 rating, which translates to around 835,000 homes. And the markets that may lay claim to some of the most overwhelming local ratings (Green Bay, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Buffalo) are so tiny when held up against New York and L.A. that their actual deliveries are practically a rounding error. Back in 2011, the Packers rang up a staggering 48.2 rating in Milwaukee, which adds up to 425,000 homes, or around 3% of the team's national deliveries.

If nothing else, the Rams' move to L.A. ensures that the NFC's ratings dominance over the AFC will endure through the foreseeable future. Eight of the top DMAs are home to an NFC franchise, and the top five markets, which represent 19% of the TV universe, are all NFC towns. (No. 1 New York splits the difference between the NFC East's Giants and the AFC East's Jets.) Of course, should the Chargers opt to relocate from San Diego, the AFC has an opportunity to gain some ground in L.A., but that decision may be up in the air until the conclusion of the March 20-23 owners meetings.

A different world
When the Rams begin settling into their new digs -- until the new Inglewood facility is completed in 2019, the team will likely play in the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, the 93-year-old pile the team ditched for Anaheim Stadium back in 1980 -- they'll be stepping into a sports culture that has done without the NFL for more than two decades. An awful lot has changed since the team and Al Davis' Raiders flew the coop all those years ago.

As difficult as it may be to imagine at this particular moment in history, the NFL of twenty-some-odd years ago wasn't anywhere near the colossus it is today. As the Rams and Raiders were working out their plans to leave Los Angeles after the 1994-95 season, some 83.4 million people watched the Super Bowl. Granted, Super Bowl XXIX was arguably the worst NFL title tilt on record -- the 49ers pounded the Chargers into a fine paste, winning 49 to 26 -- but that number wasn't too far off the beam from what other Super Bowls of the era delivered. At any rate, fast-forward to last year's Seahawks-Pats championship game, and the total audience had expanded by 31 million souls to a record 114.4 million viewers.

The regular-season ratings were similarly understated, all things being equal. In 1995, the Rams' first season in St. Louis, the NFL was only the eighth highest-rated program on TV. ABC's "Monday Night Football" averaged 23.8 million viewers and a 17.1 household rating, putting it well behind shows like "ER" (32 million viewers/22.0 household rating), "Seinfeld" (31.7 million/21.2) and "Friends" (28 million/18.7). Even the weirdly awful sitcoms NBC used as spackle between its two huge Must-See TV comedies put up bigger numbers than the prime time NFL broadcast. According to Nielsen, "Caroline in the City, "The Single Guy" and "Boston Common" that same season combined for an average 24.7 million viewers/16.7 household rating.

Not until 2011-12, when NBC's "Sunday Night Football" was in its sixth season, did the NFL lay claim to the top slot in prime time. (In the first five years, football would be edged out by Fox's meteoric "American Idol.") And that's just factoring in the prime time ratings. Fox's late national "America's Game of the Week" package has been TV's No. 1 program for six consecutive years, with CBS's 4:20 p.m. games running close second.

The Rams will storm back into the mega market in a time when NFL ratings are vertiginously high and fans are showing no sign of viewer fatigue. (This despite a seemingly unprecedented spate of exasperating rule changes, lousy officiating and off-field controversies.) The unwavering popularity of the NFL and the novelty of an L.A. franchise certainly could help boost overall TV ratings a bit, but the overall impact the move will have remains to be seen.

Of course, much will depend on the quality of the product the Rams bring to market. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but the Rams stink. The team over the last 10 seasons has posted a 50-109-1 record, giving it a .313 winning percentage, and the last time they had a winning season was back in 2003. Angelenos are a notoriously fickle fan base, and demonstrably only turn out for winners. (At the risk of igniting an East Coast-West Coast feud, the Lakers are no longer a top 10 draw. Meanwhile, the Knicks, no matter how godawful they may be, hit at least a 99% sellout level year in and year out. L.A. is Atlanta with earthquakes.)

The Rams' haplessness largely has kept them off the national radar. One of a handful of teams this season to play in only one nationally broadcast game (that's the NFL-mandated minimum), the Rams were a party to the year's least-watched, lowest-rated contest. On Dec. 17, the Rams hosted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a "Thursday Night Football" matchup that eked out a meager 6 million viewers and a 3.8 household rating. By way of comparison, NFL Network's top draw was its Nov. 5 presentation of a Browns-Bengals blowout that drew 8.79 million viewers and a 5.5 rating.

The big winner in all of this is Rams owner Stan Kroenke, who stands to make a killing with his shiny new stadium/entertainment complex/retail center. Based on previous deals -- the Giants and Jets split the proceeds from the 25-year, $425 million MetLife Stadium sponsorship package -- the naming rights alone should bring in at least $20 million a year. Toss in the luxury suites for the Hollywood swells, concessions and parking, and Mr. Kroenke could be sitting on a sparkly ATM that dispenses $200 million a year straight into his bank account.

The league itself is chuffed about the inherent possibilities of the Inglewood project, as insiders say the facility will provide a new home base for all NFL media properties, including NFL Network and various digital platforms.

Of course, all of this is likely lost on crestfallen St. Louis fans, who've had the blue-and-gold rug pulled out from under them. "Relocation is a painful process," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said as he announced the move. "It's painful for the fans, for the communities, for the teams, for the league in general. Stability is something we've taken a great deal of pride in, and in some ways this is a bittersweet moment."

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