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NFL ratings not what they used to be

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Bill Radke: The new NFL season starts tomorrow, and this weekend, CBS will mark 50 years of broadcasting pro football. The TV networks pay the league more than $3 billion a year for the rights to air the games. But given the drop in the number of people who watch football, the NFL’s TV cash cow might be a thing of the past. Here’s Adam Allington with the story.

Adam Allington: If you tick through a list of televised football firsts, CBS was often the network behind them, whether it was the first color broadcast, instant replay, or the “telestrator” — that crazy TV pen John Madden used to illustrate his signature booms and blocks for so many years.

John Madden: They know that any time that Montana’s gonna run, its gonna be out here to the right. So they’re gonna bring him right here to get in Montana’s face.

Together with play-by-play announcer Pat Summerall, Madden worked for CBS during the 80’s and 90’s, when football’s popularity on television knew no bounds.

CBS found out just how valuable the NFL was after they lost it to Fox for three years in the 1990’s.

Patrick Rishe: Typically speaking, sports properties tend to be loss leaders, but they help cross-promote the heck out of other programming.

Patrick Rishe is an associate professor of economics at Webster University in St. Louis. He says often times, networks actually lose money on the games themselves, but make it back in the form of higher ad sales on other shows.

Rishe: So the real question is do we think the sports property is going to generate enough revenue and ad sales from all of our other programming, whose ratings will hopefully be higher because we’re cross promoting using sports as a platform to do that.

But television ratings for NFL games have been slipping over the past decade. And because of league rules, any game that’s not sold out with 72 hours of kickoff can’t be broadcast locally. Early estimates say as many 12 teams may face blackouts during the upcoming season.

But CBS Sports President Sean McManus told reporters earlier this month that he doesn’t expect the blackouts to create too much pushback from advertisers.

Sean McManus: I don’t like it when I get an e-mail on Thursday morning saying here are the stadiums that aren’t sold out. But we’ve lived with them in the past, and hopefully when the economy gets better we’ll go back to as many sellouts as we used to have.

Blackouts aside, football is still the most popular sport in the U.S., with some of the highest ratings. And this season, the QB comebacks of Michael Vick and Brett Favre might add just the right amount of drama to keep fans tuning in.

I’m Adam Allington for Marketplace.

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