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Sports broadcasting ratings in South Florida reveal some puzzling trends

First in a three-part series

TV ratings for Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat have remained strong despite LeBron James’ departure.
TV ratings for Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat have remained strong despite LeBron James’ departure. EL Nuevo Herald

South Florida’s broadcast sports landscape is filled with peculiarities and curiosities.

We’re considered a football town, but our Super Bowl rating this year was the worst of any major city in the country.

The Dolphins are perceived to be our first love, but no market with only one NFL franchise watched its team on TV less than South Florida has in recent years.

LeBron James left town, but our Heat TV ratings remain strong.

Several major media companies believe South Florida has enough sports fans to support four all-sports radio stations. Yet none of the three based in Miami-Dade or Broward rank in the top 12 in audience share for their targeted male demographic group.

Examining notable evolutions in South Florida sports media and what sports fans here are watching:

LOCAL TV RATINGS TRENDS

▪ Dolphins ratings keep declining: Among markets with only one NFL team, Dolphins ratings in Miami-Fort Lauderdale were the lowest of any NFL market last season, which was also the case in 2013.

Overall, Dolphins games averaged a 16.9 rating in 2014, down from 17.7 in 2012 and 17.1 in 2013 and a drop from the team’s halcyon years.

That means 16.9 percent of Miami-Dade/Broward homes with TV sets tuned into a Dolphins game, on average, in 2014, with one ratings point equaling 16,327 homes.

In the Dolphins’ defense, their ratings are higher than local regular-season ratings for the Heat or University of Miami football, and they always rank at or near the top of most-watched programs on local TV during any particular week during the season, according to Nielsen Media Research.

But Dolphins’ ratings pale in comparison to ratings in many other NFL markets. For perspective, the average rating for the home team’s games in 2014 was 45.5 in Denver, 42.8 in New Orleans, 38.2 in Pittsburgh and 36.1 in Kansas City.

Last season, Dolphins’ ratings were higher than local ratings for only other three teams: the Jets, Giants and Raiders — all of which play in markets with two NFL franchises and divided loyalties.

And here’s another way of looking at this: The Dolphins’ highest rating last season was a 22.0 for the Denver game. That means, coincidentally, that 22 NFL teams averaged a higher rating than Miami’s highest Dolphins rating all year.

Executives at NBC-6 and WFOR-CBS 4 declined to discuss why this is the case, but at least two factors appear to contribute:

The large number of transplants living in South Florida who have no allegiance to the Dolphins; and the fact a sizable portion of South Florida’s population, and Nielsen-metered homes, primarily watch Spanish TV.

“In many of the Hispanic homes here, football was not their No. 1 sport. That hurts the ratings,” said Bernie Rosen, who ran WTVJ NBC-6’s sports department from 1960 to 1985 and worked there for 65 years before retiring in 2013.

“But the thing that hurts the Dolphins’ ratings most is just losing.”

But neither the Dolphins’ sustained mediocrity nor the transplant factor explains why South Florida’s 38.7 Super Bowl TV rating this year was the lowest of 56 metered markets.

▪ South Florida’s college football ratings are pretty pedestrian, too: Among those 56 major markets, Miami-Fort Lauderdale’s 12.3 rating ranked 51st for the Ohio State-Oregon national championship game in January. West Palm Beach was 21st with a 20.4.

The 10 UM football games that aired on ABC or one of the ESPN networks averaged a 7.3 rating in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market, decent but hardly extraordinary.

▪ Heat ratings are holding up well post-LeBron: Dolphins games still draw more than three times as many viewers as Heat games, as they should, considering there are far fewer games in the NFL than the NBA.

But whereas Dolphins ratings in South Florida rank among the NFL’s lowest, Heat ratings rank among the NBA’s highest.

Heat games on Sun Sports (excluding ABC, ESPN and TNT games) averaged a 5.0 rating this past season, down from a 6.8 the previous season but still good enough for fourth in the NBA, trailing only San Antonio (8.4), Cleveland (7.9) and Oklahoma City (7.2).

“Ratings, like attendance, retail sales, social media following and pretty much every other indicator of the health of a franchise were very strong this year because Miami Heat fans have, over time, become the most engaged, loyal and rabid fans in all of professional sports,” Heat president/business operations Eric Woolworth said.

What’s more, the Warriors-Cavaliers NBA Finals averaged an impressive 17.7 rating in Dade/Broward, higher than Dolphins ratings locally and ranking sixth among 56 major markets.

▪ Marlins ratings are on the upswing: Despite the team’s disappointing first half, Marlins ratings are somewhat on the rise, up 19 percent compared with Marlins cablecasts before last year’s All-Star break.

Marlins games on Fox Sports Florida are being viewed on average, by 31,511 people in this market, compared with a 27,000 per-game final average last season. That 27,000 ranked ahead of only Houston’s 8,000 in 2014, according to Sports Business Daily.

▪ Panthers ratings continue to lag: Games this past season on Fox Sports Florida averaged a 0.17 rating, equal to fewer than 3,500 viewers per telecast, and the lowest for any NHL team in four years, since Panthers games averaged a 0.16 rating in 2010-11.

Panthers ratings dropped 19 percent from 2013-14, surprising considering the team remained in playoff contention until late in the season this year.

LOCAL RADIO TRENDS

There are two ways of looking at sports talk radio in this market, both accurate:

A. South Florida sports fans are fortunate to have so many options, with four English stations airing sports around the clock. The fourth, WMEN-640, is based in Palm Beach but has listeners south of it. A fifth station primarily serves the West Palm Beach market.

B. The market is oversaturated, lacking enough fans to justify so many all-sports stations.

Argument B is supported by this: Among men 25 to 54, the target demographic group for sports talk radio, none of the sports stations ranked in the top half among the market’s 35 radio stations in May or June.

For the May Nielsen ratings book, 104.3 The Ticket ranked 18th with a 2.5 share in that target demographic group, WQAM-560 was 21st with a 1.7 share and WINZ-940 was 28th with a 0.3.

In the June book, The Ticket climbed to 15th among men 25 to 54 and extended its lead over WQAM among all listeners (1.9 share to 1.0).

Palm Beach-based WMEN-640 isn’t included in Nielsen’s Dade/Broward ratings book. Its shares are substantially higher in Palm Beach, where its signal is much stronger.

So does South Florida have too many all-sports stations?

“Four is a lot,” said longtime South Florida talk-show host Hank Goldberg, who now hosts an afternoon-drive time show for WMEN. “I can’t think of another market that has that many. Sales have become more important than ratings; that’s a bigger priority for these stations.”

Steve Lapa, former general manager for WMEN, said there are enough sports fans in the tri-county region to support four, or five if including the ESPN station in West Palm Beach.

“But you have to break out of the constraints of sports radio” and appeal to a broader audience, Lapa said.

Nielsen ratings, which are shared with only those willing to purchase them, combine the audience of sister stations 790 AM and 104.3 FM – without specifying the audience size on each station — which gives The Ticket an inherent advantage in comparisons with one-signal stations such as WQAM.

So it’s no surprise The Ticket consistently beats WQAM in the afternoon and evening and also beats WINZ in every day part. The Ticket, which has a marketing partnership with the Miami Herald, also has the market’s only locally-based talk show that airs nationally: Dan Le Batard’s show, which produces strong local ratings.

But in the 6-10 a.m. slot, WQAM’s Joe Rose drew a higher share than The Ticket’s Jonathan Zaslow and Joy Taylor in three of the past five ratings books, with The Ticket winning in June. That’s the most competitive battle between the two stations.

Entercom, which is awaiting approval of its acquisition of The Ticket from Lincoln Financial, hasn’t said what it plans to do with the two sports stations.

The company is searching for a new general manager to replace Maureen Lesourd, who said months ago that her vision was to have different programming on each signal.

WQAM also has a new owner, CBS Radio, and a new program director (Ryan Maguire). The station made a major lineup change this week when it decided to drop Adam Kuperstein and Channing Crowder and instead air four four-hour talk shows (Rose, Orlando Alzugaray, Marc Hochman with Zach Krantz, and Alex Donno).

“Would we like to do better? Sure,” WQAM general manager Joe Bell said. “But we’re not going anywhere.”

Meanwhile, despite owning radio rights to the Dolphins and Marlins, WINZ’s ratings remain low.

The Dolphins moved their games there in 2010, in a six-year contract, partly because parent company Clear Channel (now called IHeartMedia) was willing to simulcast the games on one of its FM stations (WBGG-105.9) and also because of WINZ’s willingness to air considerable ancillary programming, including a Dolphins show from 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays.

CHANGES ON LOCAL TV

Whereas sports radio coverage has expanded over the past decade, weeknight coverage of sports on television has diminished, except at WSVN-Fox 7.

WTVJ NBC-6, WPLG ABC-10 and WFOR CBS-4 have all reduced the time allocated to weeknight sportscasts in recent years, which is in line with a national trend.

“Part of it is understandable progression, but I think it’s sad,” Rosen said. “It started three or four years ago. You may get a news director that thinks sports is hurting the ratings. That’s the biggest joke in the world. Don’t ever believe that.”

Several months ago, NBC-6 canceled its 6 p.m. sportscast altogether, except on nights there’s significant sports news.

“In a market of this size, to do away with sports at 6 p.m. is absolutely terrible,” Rosen said. “The news director at NBC 6 [Migdalia Figueroa] doesn’t like sports, and the general manager has allowed her to do everything she wants to do. Whatever they put on instead hasn’t helped them one bit.”

NBC-6 management declined to comment for this article.

Rosen said team restrictions have made it more difficult for television to cover the local teams than earlier years.

“Don Shula allowed us to come on the field and watch the practices,” Rosen said.

Now, Dolphins reporters can watch only the first 30 minutes from the stands for regular season practices (and nothing beyond that), though that’s customary in the NFL. And the Dolphins have been far more media friendly during the past two years than they were in the several years prior.

NBC-6, Fox-7 and ABC-10 continue to air a Sunday night sports program, which is considered a local station’s signature sports offering, but WFOR-4 canceled its show two years ago, which the station declines to explain.

NBC-6 decided to keep its Sunday night show after initially informing some employees that it would be canceled at the end of last year.

Coming Saturday: How the sports media landscape, and the way viewers consume sports, has changed nationally.

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