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Digging Into The NFL Draft

This Thursday, May 8 marks the 79th annual NFL Draft, which since its inception has gone from obscurity to a major media event. And, if there’s any doubt as to just how major it has become, look no further than its impact on ESPN’s ratings.

The NFL has surely figured out how to reach fall football fans in the spring! Since 2010, the league has moved its first round draft selections to primetime, generating a tremendous amount of fan interest and excitement. And we can see that in the ESPN ratings over the past four NFL Drafts (not to mention those watching on the NFL Network).

Our analysis isolated three Thursday nights of ESPN primetime viewing: the week before the draft; the night of the draft; and the week after the draft. The spike in ESPN ratings is dramatic to say the least. In 2013, the Thursday before the draft scored a 0.66 national household coverage rating in primetime (8pm-12pm) and the Thursday after the draft drew a 0.5 primetime household rating, while the 2013 draft night scored a 4.37 primetime rating! Our analysis of national Rentrak ratings over the past 4 years revealed this has been a consistent trend.

The lift in U.S. coverage ratings for the first round ranges from a “low” of +500% (in 2010) to a high of nearly 800% in 2011. The draft years of 2012 and 2013 weren’t too bad either: up 650% and 560%, respectively.

NFL Home Team Markets

Which NFL team has the most passionate, devoted fans?

Hmmm… maybe we just won’t go there.

But we can say for certain which NFL hometown TV markets seemingly cannot get enough of the NFL Draft. Over the past four “Day One” NFL Draft telecasts (2010 – 2013), Cleveland generated a remarkable 7.4 in-market primetime household rating – that’s well over double the total U.S. figure of 3.3! The next highest-rated market was Green Bay (6.5), followed by Jacksonville (6.0), Kansas City (5.5) and then New Orleans (5.4), based on four-year weighted averages.

The Ohio Players

One of the patterns we see in the data is very high indexing cities that cluster around an NFL home team market. For example, Green Bay Packers fans apparently can be found throughout their home state of Wisconsin, given very strong viewing within the television markets of La Crosse-Eau Claire (5.64 Rating / 171 Index) and Madison (5.61 Rating / 171 Index). The same can be said for Minnesota Vikings fans in the TV markets of Rochester, MN (5.53 Rating / 168 Index) and Mankato, MN (4.54 / 138 Index).

But when it comes to home market clusters, Ohio has just about everyone beat with five TV markets bracketed by the Cleveland Browns in the northeast by Lake Erie and the Cincinnati Bengals in the far southwest, where the Ohio River divides the Buckeye State from Kentucky. Each of these five markets score well above the total U.S. figure of 3.3 with Lima scoring a 5.32 primetime household rating, Columbus, a 5.28, Youngstown, a 5.13, Dayton. a 4.82. and a 4.71 for Toledo, based on four- year weighted averages from 2010 to 2013.

A Tale of Two Coasts

With the exception of Denver (4.03 primetime HH rating, based on four-year weighted average), all western NFL home team markets exhibit significantly lower than average NFL Draft Day ratings – Seattle (2.64), San Diego (2.55), San Francisco (2.49) and Phoenix (2.22). But that may not be a reflection of fan apathy. Aside from the fact that the West Coast tends to view less television in general, the real issue here may be ESPN’s live feed; the “primetime” draft telecast starts hours earlier on the west coast when HUT levels are much lower.

Western NFL home team markets may have a legitimate excuse, but what gives with Philadelphia (2.65 rating /80 Index) and New York (2.56 rating /78 Index)? Especially New York! Not only does the New York television market draw rabid fans from two NFL franchises (the Giants and the Jets), but the NFL Draft is held at the world famous Radio City Music Hall, smack-dab in the heart of New York City! Maybe some New York fans are showing up to literally watch it live, but that can’t fully explain the disparity in ratings. In stark contrast, some 300 miles to the northwest as the crow flies, the Buffalo Bills fans help to boost that market’s ratings far beyond their downstate rivals (4.57 Rating / 139 Index).

NFL Football Served Up Southern Style

To say the Southeast is a “hotbed” for football is almost an understatement, and perhaps no state is hotter than Alabama, home to the Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers. While no NFL team at present resides in the state of Alabama, these two Southeast Conference power houses see many of their players drafted into the NFL, including an astounding number (15) in the first round over the past four years.

Tuscaloosa is home to the University of Alabama, about 60 miles or so southwest of the Birmingham TV market (5.86 Rating /178 Index), while the town of Auburn, Alabama is home to the Tigers, just 54 miles northeast of the Montgomery TV market (5.52 Rating /168 Index). And in the northern reaches of Alabama, the city of Huntsville is also keen on the NFL Draft even though no main university campus resides there (4.73 /143 Index).

With the NFL moving its draft back a month, there has been that much more time for pundits to weigh in on the collegiate prospects.  It will be interesting to see if that will bring more football fans and viewers to ESPN’s coverage of the event.

Jonathan Sims is vice president of media research at Viamedia.