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Prime time is coming: Why Lamar Jackson and the Ravens should get used to a national TV audience

“I feel great. I feel good. I’m 100 [percent],” said Jackson after practice when asked about playing on Thursday night.

If there are any doubts about the Ravens’ championship potential this season, watch their Week 13 win over the NFC-leading San Francisco 49ers. And if there any questions about their national appeal, check out the ratings for the game.

Fox’s afternoon broadcast of the Dec. 1 game was the most watched single-header in any week of the NFL season since 2015. Nearly 21 million viewers tuned in to the potential Super Bowl preview, an audience almost as large as that week’s “Sunday Night Football” broadcast. Even more remarkably, the telecast didn’t air in any of the nation’s top four media markets.

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The Ravens’ breakthrough season has brought them to Thursday night’s game against the New York Jets amid unfamiliar surroundings. In Lamar Jackson, they have the front-runner for NFL Most Valuable Player honors. Another win would extend their NFL-best streak to 10 games. They’re the favorites to secure home-field advantage in the AFC for the first time in franchise history.

As a national TV audience again turns its focus to Baltimore, the Ravens should get used to the attention. They will be a hot property in 2020. After three straight Ravens seasons with three prime-time regular-season games, sports media experts said the team should be a fixture in the NFL’s showcase games next year.

“How many times are we going to see Lamar Jackson in prime time? It's going to be the big question leading up to the schedule release” in April, said Austin Karp, the managing editor of digital at the Sports Business Journal. “Everyone's going to want a piece of him.”

Before this season, Jackson was not even the most compelling quarterback in his own division. Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers opened the season against the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots on “Sunday Night Football,” TV’s most watched show. They’ll finish the regular season with at least five other prime-time games, including a third Sunday night test this week against the Buffalo Bills.

The klieg lights were trained on Cleveland, too. With their Week 2 and Week 5 games, the Browns got as many “Monday Night Football” appearances in the first month of this season as the Ravens have had since 2017. But despite its star-studded roster, Cleveland has as many wins (five) through Week 14 as it does prime-time matchups. The NFL schedule-makers’ bet on Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr. and Freddie Kitchens has mostly gone bust.

The Ravens (11-2), meanwhile, in two mostly uncompetitive games, have delivered solid prime-time ratings. Their 37-20 win in Week 9 over the then-unbeaten New England Patriots averaged 22 million viewers, the fourth-largest audience for a Week 9 “Sunday Night Football” game since 1999 and one of the highest-rated prime-time games this season, according to Sports Media Watch. The Ravens’ rout of the Los Angeles Rams three weeks later ended a three-game streak of at least 12 million viewers for “Monday Night Football” but still drew the show’s highest Week 12 ratings in three years.

Jon Lewis, who writes under the pseudonym “Paulsen” for Sports Media Watch, cautioned that while there’s only a small sample size of ratings for the new-look Ravens, the audience for their win over San Francisco suggests that there’s “maybe there’s some outsize national interest in Baltimore right now.” Ten teams were scheduled to play five prime-time games this season, and Lewis and Karp expect the Ravens to rejoin that top tier next year.

“Certainly, for the Sunday night games, you're going to get the best teams,” Lewis said. “You're obviously going to get Dallas and New England and the Steelers. … Baltimore's not in that rotation yet, but they will be, I imagine, after this season. I think that next year, you're not going to have to be in a situation where those big Baltimore games are at 1 o'clock in the first place. They're going to be already scheduled from April to be in prime time.”

Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday that “we know that everybody in the league will be watching” their game Thursday against the Jets (5-8), but the telecast is the ugly duckling of the league’s prime-time trio. There’s competition from college football games, and now basketball, too. It’s a school night. Other new programming — on broadcast and cable networks, on Netflix and YouTube — is vying for eyeballs. Only so many people can stand to watch teams play on short rest.

The Ravens’ success might not stave off Thursday night games next season. (After all, Super Bowl winners have traditionally opened the following season in the "NFL Kickoff Game,” held the Thursday after Labor Day.) But Karp said it could affect the team’s Sunday scheduling beyond prime time. The second half of afternoon doubleheaders is a sweet spot for the league’s broadcast partners, with CBS and Fox both drawing an average of over 21 million viewers for 4:25 p.m. kickoffs last year.

If Jackson and the Ravens remain must-see TV, they could become a late-afternoon staple for CBS.

“Since the retirement of Peyton Manning, you could put the Patriots in there, maybe the Steelers sometimes, but there hasn’t really been a strong AFC draw,” Karp said. “You got a little bit of it last season with Patrick Mahomes. You were supposed to get it this season with the Browns. That did not pan out. So now they have CBS saying, 'Oh, my God. We struck gold here a little bit. We can flex the Ravens into that.’ ”

It won’t be long before the Ravens know where they belong.

JETS@RAVENS

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