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TV audience for Lamar Jackson-led Ravens grew tremendously in 2019 | COMMENTARY

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) talks with Fox sideline reporter Erin Andrews after an NFL football game against the New York Jets, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, in Baltimore. The Ravens won 42-21. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) talks with Fox sideline reporter Erin Andrews after an NFL football game against the New York Jets, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, in Baltimore. The Ravens won 42-21. (AP Photo/Nick Wass) (Nick Wass/AP)

While there was much talk during the season about more people watching the Ravens on TV — thanks in part to the play of their star quarterback Lamar Jackson — it was never supported by data. Until now.

Numbers from Nielsen Research detail a dramatic increase in the TV audience for Ravens telecasts in 2019 nationally and locally, where the boost is eye popping in some areas, especially among younger viewers in the Baltimore market.

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Country-wide, the figures are more complicated because of such factors as regional telecasts, but after crunching all the numbers, here’s a comparison that best suggests the kind of TV audience growth (and promise of even more in 2020) the Ravens saw.

In 2018, the Ravens appeared once on “NBC Sunday Night Football,” which is the largest platform in professional football and the highest-rated show on all of television. That telecast, which featured the Ravens against the Pittsburgh Steelers, was seen by 18.2 million viewers across TV and streaming. Joe Flacco played the entire game at quarterback, with Lamar Jackson getting "four carries,” a network spokesman wrote in an email to The Sun.

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This season, “NBC Sunday Night Football” showed the Ravens against the New England Patriots. That game, which featured Jackson as quarterback, was seen by 22.8 million viewers across TV and streaming. It was one of the 10 most-watched telecasts ― sports, entertainment or news ― last fall.

That’s an increase of 25% ― well above the 5% increase overall in TV viewing of the NFL in 2019 reported by CNBC.

It is impossible to say exactly how much of that is attributable to Jackson or to the improved performance of the Ravens last year. But no one would deny that Jackson’s performance drove the Ravens’ improvement, particularly as a TV attraction.

“Anytime a player emerges with a skill set that leaves their opponents literally grasping at air — that player becomes a must-see phenomenon," Fred Gaudelli, the executive producer of “NBC Sunday Night Football,” wrote in an email to The Sun. "Lamar Jackson was that player in 2019. His demolition of defenses, his style of play and, of course, the jaw-dropping plays themselves make the Ravens more relevant as a TV draw than they’ve been at any time in their history.”

Ravens’ regular season games appeared on three affiliates in Baltimore: the CBS-owned WJZ, the NBC affiliate, WBAL; and the Fox affiliate, WBFF.

The four Ravens games carried on WBFF were up 24% overall year to year, according to Nielsen data provided by the station.

But the most impressive number is for viewers 25 to 54 years of age with an increase of 49%. That is the demographic on which most TV ad sales are made. (Ravens games were up 53% with an even younger demographic: 18 to 49 years of age, according to Nielsen data provided by WBFF.)

WBAL had a larger audience as well in 2019 for the two prime-time, regular games it carried: up 32% among all viewers and 25% in the 25-54 demographic.

One of those games was the New England Patriots matchup on Nov. 3 on “NBC Sunday Night Football.” The other contest pitted the Ravens against the Los Angeles Rams on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” on Nov. 25. The fact that the latter was a 45-6 blowout might have resulted in a lower rating. Furthermore, the game could be seen in Baltimore on both ESPN and WBAL-TV.

WJZ was the station with the most regular season Ravens games: 10, thanks to its relationship with CBS.

Nationally, Ravens games on CBS were up 8% year to year, according to Nielsen ratings provided by CBS. But in Baltimore, Ravens telecasts were up 41%, according to Nielsen ratings provided by WJZ.

Furthermore, all five of WJZ’s locally-produced “Purple” Ravens shows were up by double digits, with the “Purple Post Game” show increasing its audience by 51% among viewers 25-54 year to year.

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“Lamar Jackson has redefined the quarterback position in the NFL,” Audra Swain, vice president and general manager of WJZ, wrote in an email response to a Sun question about Jackson and the Ravens as TV attractions. “For a team previously defined by low scoring games and a hard-hitting defense, this year’s Ravens, armed with a lightning fast QB, are breaking records left and right. Now the rest of the world has caught on to what we in Baltimore have known since drafting Lamar in 2018: He is an absolute game-changer for the team, the city and for television ratings.”

Robert J. Thompson, professor of TV and popular culture at Syracuse University, says ratings can only start to measure what Jackson has become in the popular imagination in this era of polarization and deepening cultural divides.

"Jackson seems like he was sent from Central Casting or created by some really smart person in an NFL PR lab: young, likable, friendly, modest ... loves his mom ― and a quarterback who represents the city in important ways. And really, really good at what he does,” Thompson said in a Sun interview.

“Given all the large negative issues with the NFL ― like concussions and brain damage for the athletes and players misbehaving in serious ways ― out steps this young man onto the TV stage countering all that in a seemingly authentic way, posing for selfies with fans who stop him on the street, saying all the right things about hard work and sharing the spotlight with his teammates," Thompson continued.

“How can you not like him? I’m not saying I’d quite put Lamar Jackson in the ‘Everybody Likes’ category with Fred Rogers and Tom Hanks," Thompson concluded. "But he is definitely “Everybody Likes” adjacent.”

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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