By Tim Baysinger
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Fox will have to rely on the popularity of the New England Patriots as they face the less-celebrated Atlanta Falcons if it wants to draw a record U.S. television crowd for the Super Bowl.
The 21st Century Fox unit is set to broadcast the 51st edition of the National Football League’s title game on Feb. 5 in what is traditionally the most-watched TV show of the year with viewership of more than 100 million.
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Big Super Bowl ratings are particularly important this year as the NFL is coming off a season in which it saw its average TV audience drop by 8 percent. The league was hoping the playoffs would continue its post-U.S. election turnaround but the post-season has been filled with one-sided match-ups, with an average margin of victory of 15.7 points.
Heading into Sunday's conference championships games, NFL playoff games have averaged 33.2 million viewers, down more than 3 percent from last year.
This year’s title game in Houston pits the four-time Super Bowl champion Patriots against the Falcons, who are making only their second Super Bowl appearance.
Fox is getting more than $5 million for 30 seconds of commercial time and as high as $700,000 for a spot in the online livestream of the game, according to Fox Sports’ chief executive Eric Shanks.
Fox has not sold its entire ad inventory for the game yet, hoping to command a premium from any last-minute buyers, although a Falcons-Patriots matchup may not command quite as a high a rate.
While the Falcons have quarterback Matt Ryan, a favorite to win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award, Fox missed out on a chance of having Patriots quarterback Tom Brady square off against Green Bay’s superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers after the Packers were defeated by the Falcons on Sunday.
This came a week after the Packers eliminated the Dallas Cowboys from the playoffs. A Cowboys-Patriots Super Bowl was widely considered to be the most enticing TV match-up. Four of the five most-viewed games this season featured the Cowboys and their one playoff game brought in 48.5 million viewers, the most for any TV show since last year’s Super Bowl.
"They just have an incredibly strong national following," said Jason Maltby, director of national broadcast TV at ad agency MindShare. “Losing Dallas is definitely a minus for them.”
The Falcons have little national presence. In their first Super Bowl appearance in 1999, they were easily defeated by the Denver Broncos in what was the least-viewed Super Bowl of the past 20 years with 83.7 million viewers.
“Atlanta just hasn’t been there a lot, and while Matt Ryan is definitely a premiere QB ... he’s just not as well known,” Maltby said.
The advertising market has been slower this year due to the lower TV ratings and increased advertiser spending on the U.S. presidential election and Summer Olympics in 2016, according to a media buyer with knowledge of the negotiations.
Fox did not immediately respond when asked for an update on ad sales.
(Reporting by Tim Baysinger; Editing by Bill Trott)