Arena football seeks traction

Viewership off from Peacock's guarantee to advertisers

All of the vital signs of the Arena Football League appear to be less than robust.

Despite strong promotion, NBC has managed to entice only 1.62 million total viewers, a paltry average, every Sunday afternoon since Feb. 2, when the network gave the AFL its first regular national-broadcast platform.

That viewership translates into a 1.1 rating, well off the 1.5 rating NBC guaranteed advertisers in the first rate cards.

National outlets like “Sportscenter” on ESPN and USA Today, as well as most local newspapers and TV stations, have basically ignored the games, despite protests by the AFL and the Peacock.

“The AFL just hasn’t managed to work its way on to the radar screen of sports fans,” says Kevin O’Malley, the Tampa-based sports consultant and former top exec for Turner Sports.

Madison Avenue is also still trying to get a handle on arena football.

“There’s very little interest among my clients to buy time on such a low-impact sport,” says Aaron Cohen, exec VP for Horizon Media.

But Andy Donchin, VP for media buyer Carat, says, “The 1.1 rating for arena football is about what I expected.” Donchin’s client KIA, which has bought spots on the games, is “okay being there,” he says.

Tom DeCabia, another media buyer who is exec VP of PHD USA, says one of the reasons arena football hasn’t caught fire is that NBC may be the wrong network to hype the sport on air.

“Because it has so much action and scoring,” DeCabia says, “arena football is geared to younger viewers. But NBC is promoting it on sports like golf and tennis,” which appeal to an older audience. NBC doesn’t own the TV rights to winter/spring events like NBA and NCAA basketball, whose fan base would more closely parallel that of the AFL.

NBC has taken pains to cover the games straightforwardly, seeking to erase memories of the downmarket, exploitative XFL contests that NBC and World Wrestling scuttled in 2001 after one notorious season.

“NBC did not want to go down the path of the XFL, which turned off advertisers,” says Ray Dundas, senior VP for Initiative Media.

As big a flop as the XFL turned out to be, NBC and the WWE seized on every gimmick they could come up with, hell-bent on capturing the experience of actually attending an XFL game.

The AFL is something of a reverse image of the XFL.

David Carter, a principal in the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group, says, “Arena football is a much better sport in person. The fans are right on top of the playing field, which generates real excitement. And players hang around after the game to sign autographs.”

As Dean Bonham, head of the Bonham Group and former owner of the Denver Dynamite arena-football team, puts it, “The worst seat in the house at an AFC game is better than the best seat at an NFL game.”

Ken Schanzer , president of NBC Sports, shrugs off Carter’s criticism by saying, “No sport in America can really translate the stadium experience to your living room. But with instant replays, microphones everywhere and an intensity of focus on the action, the AFL is getting a quality broadcast.”

Network and league officials are frustrated by the lack of print coverage of AFL games, particularly since lower-rated sports such as the Women’s NBA and professional soccer get plenty of ink.

But despite the low ratings, both the league and the network will make money.

The parties declined to comment, but ad revenues for the first year will surpass $15 million. The first $12 million of that total goes to NBC for the cost of covering the games in the first season, encompassing four regional games each week from Feb. 2 through May 18, plus post-season contests through Arena Bowl XVII on June 22.

The next $3 million goes into the coffers of the AFL. Every dollar above $15 million gets split by NBC and the AFL.

“We’re coming off the best season in the 17-year history of the league,” says David Baker, commissioner of the AFL.

Baker points to 17 sellouts in the regular season compared to four in 2002, and an increase in average attendance this year of 15%, to 11,397. Merchandising sales and internet traffic are up for the league, and the 1.1 regular-season rating on NBC is 38% higher than the 0.8 rating for last year’s Arena Bowl championship game, which ABC covered.

NBC signed a two-year deal, guaranteeing that it will carry AFL games every week in 2004. After that, NBC has an option to continue covering the games for four more years, on the same terms as this year.

“It’s going to take a while for the AFL to get traction,” says Ray Warren, managing director of OMD USA. “NBC is going to have to do a lot more promotion of the games next year.”

DeCabia agrees. “NBC has got the first year’s kinks out of its coverage of arena football,” he says. As for future prospects of the AFL, DeCabia is decisive: “Don’t count it out.”