February football fever in St. Louis continues to frolic.
The upstart BattleHawks again far out-rated the region’s other major sports teams in television viewership last weekend, while drawing the biggest crowd in the three-week history of the current version of the XFL.
Nielsen, which tracks viewership, reports that the 8 percent of homes in the market that turned in is the largest rating in any market for an XFL game this year. And St. Louis is averaging a 4.0 rating for all games in the league that have been shown on ESPN or ABC, tops in the country. For some reason Tulsa, Okla., is second (3.2).
Weeks of buildup finally culminated last Sunday, when the first pro football game to be played in town in more than four years was about to kick off.
No, it wasn’t the NFL — which shunned the city in January 2016 when the league granted Stan Kroenke’s request to pull the Rams from the city that he had ripped for failing to support his product. But he conveniently didn’t mention that he had turned the Rams into one of the worst-performing franchises — it didn’t have a winning record in its last 11 seasons in town, including a three-year run of 6-42 — in American professional sports history.
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This time it was the XFL and the BattleHawks, a team that hadn’t even played a game until two weeks earlier. Nearly 30,000 fans crammed into the lower bowl of The Dome at America’s Center to see the team play the New York Guardians. More St. Louisans than that were primed to watch on television.
But those who tuned in at showtime to ESPN instead saw the conclusion of the Wichita State-Cincinnati college basketball game. A note on the screen said that the start of the B-Hawks’ battle could be seen on ESPNews and the ESPN App. But many viewers have neither. So they missed not only seeing the frenzied fans in the “Battle Dome,” as local sportscaster Howard Balzer is calling it, as the game began but also the kickoff of the first XFL game in town as well as the first touchdown at home scored by the club. ESPN joined just as the B-Hawks were kicking off following their score.
An ESPN spokesperson addressed the matter:
“First, it’s standard procedure for us to stay with a game in progress through its conclusion. In this case the Cincinnati-Wichita State college basketball game went long so the XFL telecast was pushed back 5 minutes — starting . . . on ESPNews and the ESPN App.”
The spokesperson added that the move was noted on the screen.
“When the basketball game ended, we quickly switched to XFL on ESPN . . . Not much to say other than it’s common for these situations to occur when you are programming back-to-back live events. We are fortunate to have multiple networks and platforms for situations when we need to shift coverage for a few minutes.”
Overlapping is common for ESPN and ESPN2, which often schedule games so tightly that one isn’t over until after the next has begun. That also happened last Friday, when ESPN2 didn’t pick up St. Louis University’s basketball contest until it was closing in on halftime because the preceding game went into overtimeand ESPN2 stuck with that.
Why not move the conclusion of long-running games to the backup outlets in the markets of the teams competing in the later-starting contest?
“Home market protections are extremely rare and something we try to avoid,” the spokesperson said. “We don’t like to leave events that are in-progress, and, in this case as an example, there may have been Cincinnati or Wichita State fans/alums/etc. who live in St. Louis and wanted to see the final minute of the game that they had been watching for the past two hours.. Preference is to remain with an event on its existing network until its conclusion so We are not making choices for the viewer when every viewer has the option to, in this case, decide whether to watch the end of the basketball or switch over to XFL.”
But again, not everyone has ESPNEWS or the App.
Fox is taking the opposite approach, said Sarah Souza, program manager of local affiliate KTVI (Channel 2) — which shows the BattleHawks’ game Saturday.
“We are a mandatory kickoff market,” she said. “So just like with the NFL, in the event that there is an extremely late-running basketball game, Fox would transition our feed to the XFL game prior to kickoff.”
Fox is allowing 2½ hours between the start of the Seton Hall-Marquette basketball game and the beginning of the BattleHawks’ telecast Saturday, which is 30 minutes more than ESPN did last week.
The NFL never has a lead-in games from another sport that could overlap — CBS and Fox start their football Sundays with a pregame show, as do networks that show night games. Then if an early game runs long, it simply disappears in the markets of the teams playing in the later contest in time for kickoff.
The BattleHawks’ stellar television ratings have occurred despite none of their games to date having been shown on an over-the-air station. And in this market, sporting events on “free TV” stations traditionally out-draw those on cable by a significant amount. KTVI is the beneficiary this weekend.
The game Saturday (4 p.m. at home against Seattle) is a good, but not great, time slot for Channel 2. All the B-Hawks’ games to date have kicked off on late Sunday afternoons, which has been established as gold for the NFL. But late Saturdays, when the BattleHawks play this week, are weaker in part because many people are getting ready to go out that night — then might be out by the time the game ends.
“If I had Sunday at 4 (o’clock) it would be a big number,” KTVI general manager Kurt Krueger said. “But given Saturday, mid-to late afternoon, I think we can pop a couple points” in the ratings over last week.
Fox is sending Curt Menefee to town to do the play-by-play of the game, as well as Joel Klatt to provide analysis and Brock Huard to report from the field.
Channel 2 is so revved up about the B-Hawks’ success that it is producing its own pregame show, at 3:30 p.m.
“Sales have been great, we’re thrilled,” Krueger said. “The excitement has been overflowing.”
Unlike the kickoff of the game, Channel 2’s pregame show would be preempted if the Seton Hall-Marquette game runs long. But it would be streamed on fox2now.com as well as the fox2 App and be joined in progress on TV.
WHAT WE WATCHED
The major area sports teams’ ratings, from Nielsen, for games last weekend: