NFL Draft Ratings Take a Hit

Stronger comps put a crimp in ESPN overnights

A tough roster of broadcast competition may have sacked fan interest in the NFL Draft, as preliminary Nielsen data suggests that ESPN took a hit with its Thursday night coverage.

According to Nielsen overnights, ESPN’s presentation of the NFL Draft averaged a 4.4, down 17 percent from the 5.3 it notched during last year’s first round coverage.

A year ago, ESPN set a record with its draft opener, averaging 7.29 million viewers on April 22 from 7:30 p.m. to 11:20 p.m. That same night, NFL Network delivered 1.03 million viewers.

Early estimates suggest ESPN’s first round of 2011 draft coverage averaged 6 million total viewers. If those numbers hold, Bristol’s deliveries will be down 18 percent year-over-year.

While NFL Network’s overnights suggested a corresponding decline, the live-plus-same day delivery (1.04 million viewers) was a slight improvement over last year’s average. 

All told, ESPN and NFL Net should combine for around 7 million viewers upon application of live-plus-seven day ratings, down 16 percent from last years record total (8.32 million). And while that’s a noticeable decline, the delivery also marks the second biggest audience in draft history.

While casual fans may dismiss the draft as a trifle—some have gone so far as to compare it to the Royal Wedding in terms of its marriage of fluff and tedium—there’s no doubting how important the night is for NFL die-hards. The rise of fantasy football has also helped establish the event as must-see TV for pigskin aficionados.

That said, the numbers may have been down as a result of a ferocious lineup of broadcast fare. A live American Idol on Fox scared up 19 million viewers in the 8 p.m. time slot, while a new Big Bang Theory siphoned off 10.5 million viewers on CBS.

Meanwhile, some 8.13 million viewers tuned in to NBC from 9-10 p.m. to see Michael Scott punch out for the last time on The Office.

There was also a good deal of action on cable. TNT’s NBA doubleheader featured surefire ratings kings L.A. Lakers close out New Orleans to advance to the Western Conference semis. Kobe Bryant and Co. will meet the Dallas Mavericks in a best-of-seven series that tips off on TNT May 2.

Through its first 19 NBA Playoff telecasts, TNT is averaging 4.26 million viewers.

Overnights did not include data from storm-ravaged Birmingham, Alabama. Final deliveries will be available Friday, sometime after 4 p.m. EDT.

ESPN’s draft coverage was marked by a more streamlined approach, as the sports network cut its on-air panel from five commentators to three. Calling the action last night were Chris Berman, Mel Kiper, Jr., and Jon Gruden. Tom Jackson and Steve Young were sidelined.

Meanwhile, NFL Network ran the other way, boasting a five-man crew helmed by former ESPN anchor Rich Eisen. The face of NFLN, Eisen was the first on-air talent hired by the network back in 2003.

Also on hand were Marshall Faulk, Mike Mayock, Steve Mariucci and Michael Irvin.

While the selection of Heisman-winning Auburn quarterback Cam Newton as the No. 1 pick was a given, there were a few surprise selections sprinkled throughout the first round. Another wrinkle that couldn’t have come as a shocker, given the venue (New York’s Radio City Music Hall): Fans lustily booed NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as he first made his way to the podium, and the jeers continued throughout the round.