Big game grabs third smallest ratings in ten years

HOLLYWOOD — Maybe the red state/blue state divide applies to football viewing too.

Despite a competitive contest that featured the first appearance in 24 years for the popular Philadelphia Eagles, the Feb. 6 Super Bowl on Fox settled for relatively ho-hum Nielsens.

An average aud of 86.1 million tuned into the game, won by the New England Patriots 24-21, making it easily the year’s biggest draw but also the third smallest Super Bowl crowd in 10 years. And in key demos like adults 18-49, none of pro football’s title contests has rated lower.

The regional nature of this year’s game — Boston and Philadelphia are separated by just 300 miles — may be most to blame for the Nielsen nadir.

Three of the four lowest-rated Super Bowls to date have been matchups of Northeastern teams (Washington-Buffalo in 1992, Baltimore-New York Giants in 2001 and now New England-Philadelphia), while the two most-watched in the past 10 years pitted Dallas against Pittsburgh in 1996 and Denver vs. Green Bay in 1998.

Nielsen reported double-digit percentage drops vs. last year’s Super Bowl in Middle-America NFL markets such as Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City and St. Louis — which failed to compensate for growth in top 10 markets Philly, Boston and D.C.

Another possible explanation is that Fox, for all its station upgrades since acquiring football in the ’90s, remains at a disadvantage when it comes to distribution. And as a 15-hour broadcaster without regular news, morning or latenight programming, the net’s marketing muscle doesn’t quite stack up to ABC and CBS — the other nets that alternate airing the Bowl.

Fox certainly can’t complain about the semi-Super ratings, though, which have vaulted it to within striking distance of first-place CBS for the season lead in the adults 18-49 demo. And with “American Idol” as hot as ever, the crown is now Fox’s for the taking.

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