It's been a watershed year for the NFL and the Nielsens, with the pro football league, breaking through the clutter of today's fragmented media universe, to rack up a bevy of ratings records, dating back, in some instances, almost 30 years.
Will the league keep the momentum going tonight with ESPN's coverage of the Pro Bowl?
The All-Star game, varying from its usual stage in Hawaii after the Super Bowl, kicks off tonight at 7:20 p.m. (ET) in South Florida from Sun Life Stadium, the site of Super Bowl XLIII Feb. 7.
The different scheduling, as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been wont to point out in interviews with myriad media outlets, has certainly upped the profile of the game. The earlier start serves as a lead-in of sorts for Super Bowl week.
At the same time, Pro Bowlers from the championship game combatants, the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints, are obviously not participating for the fear of injury. Moreover, league requirements that the selected Pro Bowl players attend the festivities and sponsor obligations have generated headlines about travel plans and the possible break from the Super Bowl tradition of clubs arriving en masse at the host city.
Whether any of that entices more viewers -- some can sate their football Jones -- to the contest remains to be seen. Conversely, others could be lost to the Grammys at 8 p.m. on CBS, which was originally scheduled to air the game (under the current TV contract, the network that televises the Super Bowl has been airing the Pro Bowl).
In 2009, NBC scored a 5.4 national rating, while Fox notched a 6.3 in 2008, the best since ABC's 8.6 back in 2000. The last time CBS aired the game in 2007, it averaged a 4.6.
The last three times ESPN carried the All-Star game, the network averaged a 4.8 cable rating and 6.36 million viewers on Feb. 8, 2004, a 5.1 rating and 6.16 million on Feb. 13, 2005 and a 4.5 and 5.96 million on Feb. 12, 2006.
The Pro Bowl is returning to Hawaii in 2011 and 2012.
For those keeping their Nielsen scorecards, the NFL averaged 16.6 million viewers per game during the 2009 regular season, its best since 16.7 million in 1990. Fox, NBC, ESPN, and NFL Network each tackled their most-watched NFL regular seasons ever, while CBS notched its best since 1993, according to league officials.
Fans were even more intrigued by the Wild Card games on Jan. 9 and 10, with the contests averaging 29.9 million watchers, just a shade under the 30 million the four-equivalent games averaged in 1994. This season's Wild Card average was up 16% from the 25.8 million for last season's quartet.
As for the Divisional round of games on Jan. 16 and 17, the four contests scored with an average of 33 million, the most since 1994, and a 15% increase over last season's 28.8 average. Fox's coverage of Minnesota's dismantling of Dallas on Jan. 17 tackled 37.7 million viewers, the most on TV since Super Bowl XLIII -- Pittsburgh's last-second win over the Arizona Cardinals -- pulled in an NFL championship game record 98.7 million watchers.
The Dallas-Minnesota mark fell during the Jan. 24 conference championship games. Indianapolis' 30-17 triumph over the New York Jets drew 46.9 million watchers, the most for an AFC championship game in 24 years, since New England-Miami scored with 47.5 million on Jan. 12, 1986.
The NFC championship game, in which New Orleans took Minnesota's measure 31-28 in overtime, was watched by 57.9 million, the most for a conference title tilt since 68.7 million on Jan. 10, 1982 saw Joe Montana and Dwight Clark combine on "The Catch" to rope the Cowboys. In what could be Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre's swan song, the Saints win over the Vikings was the most-watched non-Super Bowl program on TV since 76.3 milion scoped the Seinfeld finale on May 14, 1998.
Although ESPN's coverage of the Pro Bowl isn't going to approach any of those numbers, the worldwide leader is setting the stage for the All-Star game with a special edition of Sunday NFL Countdown at 5:30 p.m. Chris Berman will host the festivities from Sun Life Stadium, along with analysts Cris Carter, Mike Ditka, Tom Jackson and Keyshawn Johnson, Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter.
The telecast will be called by the Monday Night Football team of Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski.
Reporters Suzy Kolber (AFC) and Michele Tafoya (NFC) will cover the Pro Bowl teams and sidelines. Berman will also have interviews with Colts and Saints players from a sideline set, including an anticipated halftime interview with Super Bowl quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.
The ESPN telecast will feature 14 live microphones on players and coaches that will allow fans to hear live audio of conversations in the huddle, during plays and in the locker rooms.
ESPN Deportes will also offer a Spanish-language telecast of the Pro Bowl with pre-game coverage beginning at 7 p.m.