The Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens kick off their annual preseason game Thursday night, a game that will be seen on ESPN in both Baltimore and Washington. At the end of the exhibition, Comcast SportsNet will offer a hour-long postgame show to viewers in both markets, covering both teams. Once the regular season starts, though, coverage of the two teams gets considerably more complicated, and fans in the two adjacent television markets don’t always get to choose which team they’re seeing.
When the teams play regular season games at the same time on Sept. 18, for example, CSN viewers in the Montgomery and Prince George’s County suburbs will get a 90-minute Redskins postgame show. Viewers in neighboring Howard and Anne Arundel Counties, some of whom live less than 15 miles from the Redskins’ FedEx Field, will instead get a 90-minute Ravens postgame show.
The Redskins’ traditional dominance in places like Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties hasn’t stopped the Ravens from expanding their television reach this year. A preseason deal with Washington’s ABC affiliate and a growing programming arrangement with CSN will bring more Ravens content to more Washington-area viewers, and, the Ravens hope, continue to enlarge their fan base.
“What we’re really trying to do is fight for young fans, and fight for new people moving into the [Baltimore-Washington] area,” Ravens President Dick Cass said this week. “The Redskins have been here forever; right now their brand is stronger than our brand. They have a larger fan base than we do. We’re just fighting to grow our fan base.”
Ravens Coach John Harbaugh has previously boasted that his franchise is converting younger fans in the Washington area and joked about taking over the District, although he retreated somewhat when asked about that this week.
“That’s not really my area, but I’m told there are a lot of young people that really like the Ravens in this area,” he told reporters. “We want to build on that. We could take all the help we can get. We want as many fans as we can get.”
And Ravens officials said this month that they’re not attempting to convert Redskins fans.
“We’re not going after the Redskins . . . we’re not trying to take anything from them,” Ravens Vice President of Corporate Sales and Development Mark Burdett said. “We want to just make sure we’re serving the fans who are looking for us, who actively want to be AFC and/or Ravens fans.”
The Redskins’ dominance in the Washington market is unchallenged. When the two teams’ preseason broadcasts went head-to-head last Friday, the Redskins earned a 13.4 rating in the D.C. market, according to Nielsen overnight figures, while the Ravens broadcast on WJLA got just a 1.4, about the same rating the Redskins achieved in the Baltimore market.
“They have nowhere near the tradition of Redskins fans,” said Washington cornerback Josh Wilson, who grew up in the area and has played for both teams. “But the Ravens have a strong fan base up there. They’re growing and getting kind of that establishment that the Redskins already have.”
Ravens officials are confident that their efforts to reach fans in Washington are worthwhile. The Ravens’ preseason debut against the Philadelphia Eagles this month attracted 170,000 households in the Washington market, far bigger than the audiences for most Capitals or Nationals game, which appear on cable.
“Gangbusters,” WJLA General Manager Bill Lord said. “The audience seems to like them. It’s a good product; it’s a good team; and we feel very good about the partnership.”
The Ravens estimate that 10 percent of their season-ticket holders live in the D.C. television market, with an additional 21 percent in the swing counties of Howard and Anne Arundel. The Redskins declined to provide similar data.
“They’re viewed as a cutting-edge organization that’s less your parents’ or grandparents’ team; but your high school or junior high school buddy’s team,” said Marc Ganis, whose Chicago-based sports consulting firm has worked with more than half the NFL teams. “The Redskins will remain the dominant team [in the Maryland suburbs] by a wide stretch, but that doesn’t mean [the Ravens] can’t generate a nice fan base there. I expect they will, as a matter of fact.”
Ravens officials said they’re fighting against not just the Redskins’ longer history, but also arcane television rules.
Preseason NFL broadcasts are controlled by individual teams, which can craft their own business arrangements with one or multiple networks in their primary and secondary markets. Regular season broadcasts, however, are governed by NFL rules. Both Baltimore and Washington are considered secondary markets to each other, which means when the Ravens are on the road and not going head-to-head against a Redskins broadcast, Washington’s CBS affiliate is required to broadcast those games. When the Ravens are at home, the CBS affiliate has the option to pick up their game. But when both the teams play at the same time, NFL blackout rules keep the Ravens off Washington airwaves.
WTTG, the Washington Fox affiliate, remains available to many cable subscribers in Howard, Anne Arundel and Harford counties, meaning Redskins games are shown in those parts of the Baltimore market. Ravens games, however, are never shown in the Washington market when they go head-to-head with home Redskins games.
The Ravens have long argued that the NFL should treat the entire region as one unified television market, as it does with San Francisco and Oakland, getting rid of what Burdett called “an imaginary line” between the two fan bases. An NFL spokesman said this week that the league “works to minimize those conflicts,” but that Washington and Baltimore are “separate television markets.”
The Redskins declined to comment on this or any other aspect of the Ravens’ television strategy.
In the meantime, the Ravens are doing what they can to increase their exposure in Washington. The expanded deal with CSN, for example, will have Ravens programming on that network every weekday, plus some pre-game Ravens shows and 16 postgame shows.
“I’m as interested as everyone else to see if there’s a defined break [between the fanbases], but I don’t honestly have an understanding of how those counties split out,” said Rebecca Schulte, the senior vice president and general manager of Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic, which has a business arrangement with The Washington Post.
“It’ll be interesting to see by ratings and by social media, the reactions we get through Twitter and Facebook and our Web site, if they’re seeing what they want to see.”