NFL in L.A. is a ratings conundrum

If winning team arrives, local viewership may rise

If you play hard-to-get long enough, the object of your desire just might come your way after all.

That could be the case between Los Angeles and the NFL. Jilted by the Raiders and Rams and without a franchise since 1994, L.A. seems closer than ever to having professional football in the area again after AEG recently unveiled plans for a downtown stadium and a naming-rights deal with Farmers Insurance.

But while there’s jubilation in some quarters, there’s also uncertainty in the television universe as to how a team in Los Angeles would affect national and local ratings.

Adding a team in the city certainly will have an impact, with results likely to depend on the quality of the ballclub.

“The fact that L.A. is the nation’s No. 2 market, obviously it benefits the league having a team there,” says Leah LaPlaca, ESPN’s VP of programming, who oversees the network’s NFL rights. “It’s a great sports town with the Lakers, Dodgers and USC. (There was) a nice tradition with pro football there for many years with the Raiders and Rams. It’s not like the area wasn’t able to sustain a team.”

LaPlaca says that having an NFL team in the city will help create even more interest in a league that already seems to be unstoppable.

“If it increases the number of NFL fans, then certainly those fans will watch more NFL (games) overall,” she says.

Others aren’t so sure. Darren Revell, CNBC sports business analyst, says having a team in L.A. will only have a ratings impact locally — and then only if the team is good. He believes the ratings impact for national games will be minimal, especially since a large number of fans tune in to the NFL primarily because of gambling or fantasy leagues.

“I’m going to be really generous here: Let’s say 6% of the (casual sports fans) in L.A. become interested in the NFL with a team in town,” he explains. “That’s a number the NFL doesn’t care about. For a local market, that’s great local ratings, but the NFL cares about the big pie.”

Ratings certainly will be affected by which team ends up in Los Angeles. According to research provided by ESPN, the most popular teams on “Monday Night Football” in Los Angeles over the past three years have been the San Diego Chargers, Minnesota Vikings, Oakland Raiders and New Orleans Saints — all of which have been mentioned as possible candidates for L.A. at one time or another. This past season, the highest-rated “Monday Night Football” game was the Vikings vs. Jets, which pulled in a 13.6 rating in the L.A. market.

If a winning team comes to Los Angeles, the local blackout that exists league-wide for games that don’t sell out likely won’t come into play, and fans would also be able to watch the game live on local TV, which would boost ratings. But if a team that has only varied success over the years and is not a TV draw — think the Jacksonville Jaguars — moves to L.A., then all bets are off. Unsold tickets to the games would mean a blackout and a big hole in the television schedule that would limit the number of games beamed into the L.A. market.

“There’s definitely an impact nationally and locally,” notes Bill Wanger, exec VP of programming and reseach for Fox Sports Media Group. “From a local standpoint, you’re talking about more than doubling the rating for a home team in L.A. vs. a neutral game. It’s definitely a benefit on the O&O side.”

Wanger believes that, in the years since the Rams and Raiders bolted, it opened up the L.A. market to be able to see more teams with national appeal. Watching the key games each Sunday has helped make Los Angeles a major TV market for the NFL, which regularly beams three Sunday morning and afternoon games in to L.A. For cities that have teams, the agreement between the league and the networks in some instances limits that number of games to two per market, reducing the likelihood of seeing the best national game in any given week.

“The big national-appeal teams have kind of helped grow the appeal overall in Los Angeles,” Wanger says.

Ad buyer Gary Carr of Targetcast thinks his clients won’t be affected much whether there’s an L.A. team or not, and no matter how good that team is. The NFL is an 800-pound gorilla gaining weight, and one or two teams changing cities shouldn’t make much of a difference from an ad perspective.

“I don’t see an earth-shattering change,” he says. “The NFL ratings are pretty damn high as it is.”