- The Washington Times - Friday, October 5, 2001

Professional and college sports have made their tenuous return from the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11. Stadiums in many cities are full, just as they were before. Fan focus is again on Barry Bonds' home run chase, baseball pennant races, Michael Jordan's comeback and surprising starts throughout the NFL.

But the nation's appetite for watching sports on TV has yet to approach already weakening pre-attack levels. Ratings for ABC's "Monday Night Football" have fallen 12 percent behind last year's. ESPN's Sunday night NFL coverage trails last year's marks by 15 percent, and Fox is down with the NFL on Sunday afternoons by 8 percent. College football on ABC, CBS and NBC is down a combined 16 percent from a year ago. Baseball games not involving Bonds have often found similar trouble drawing viewers.

The declining sports numbers counter much of the rest of pop culture. "Friends" on NBC last week pulled in its largest audience in more than five years. Early season draws for other popular programs like "ER," also on NBC, and "Everyone Loves Raymond" on CBS similarly have bettered those for last season. Book and album sales, movie admissions and video rentals are all back at or near historical norms following the worst-ever terrorist incident on American soil.

"It's just a theory, but I think when the weekend rolls around, your prime sports-viewing period, more people lately are wanting to get out of the house and do other things," said Neal Pilson, former CBS Sports president and now a TV industry consultant. "There are lot of factors at play here, such as weather, matchups and the like. But we've obviously had a disruption of normal viewing patterns and haven't yet rebounded."

The shrinking audiences are creating an uncomfortable squeeze play for sports programmers. Already dealing with less demand for air time from advertisers before the terrorist strikes, the sponsorship market also has fallen off dramatically in the last three weeks. Fox, for one, is more than 60 percent behind its usual ad sales pace for NFL broadcasts.

As a result, networks are now cutting expenses wherever possible. Fox has suspended use of the popular virtual 1st and Ten line during NFL games. On-site production crews are tighter than before, and travel budgets have shrunk by more than a third for some outlets.

"It's no secret we're looking at every opportunity to save money where we can," Fox Sports president Ed Goren said yesterday. "We're certainly feeling a pinch, but I don't think we're alone. So many companies are tightening up. There are a lot of companies normally buying ads that are no longer spending that money."

Timing is also working against sports. Though baseball starts its postseason Monday, college and pro football are entering the meat of their regular seasons, and hockey began anew Wednesday, network sports divisions have been competing against high-profile season premieres from their entertainment wings.

And Fox, set to air more than a dozen baseball playoff games this month in weeknight prime time, will battle such stalwarts as NBC's "The West Wing," "Friends" and the third installment of CBS' "Survivor." Internal projections of increased ratings this year are only mildly optimistic.

"To help matters, we're going to vote one member off our production team after each game," Joe Buck, Fox's lead baseball play-by-play announcer, said jokingly.

The main exception to the declining ratings trend is NASCAR. The auto racing circuit, in the first year of its shared contract with Fox and NBC, continues to enjoy regular exposure on major broadcast networks and is setting personal records in the process. NBC's 4.7 rating and 11 share for last Sunday's Protection One 400 was the best-ever national mark for an auto race airing at the same time as the NFL. A ratings point is worth a little more than a million households, while the share denotes the percentage of TVs in use tuned to a particular program.

"NASCAR is exceeding our expectations, even in the face of the stiffest competition," said Ken Schanzer, the president of NBC Sports. "This property is running on all cylinders."

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