Why Are `ATH’ Ratings Down? I Have a Theory

This is going to sound like blatant self-promotion, and you know what? I don’t give a damn. Late in 2010, when I left the daily ESPN debate show called “Around The Horn,” the ratings were at an all-time peak. Average viewership in the 5:00-5:30 p.m. ET block was rounded off at 943,000, and while the pseudo-intellects in Bristol were too snooty to admit it, the driving force behind the program was the daily verbal duel between me and fellow panelist Woody Paige.

I know this because I couldn’t walk 10 feet anywhere — an airport in Phoenix, a side street in New York, a casino in Vegas, a museum in Italy — without someone stopping and asking, “Do you really hate Woody?” And he’d get the same thing. Both of us were successful, award-winning columnists in larger markets, and when the original executive behind the show, Mark Shapiro, instructed the panelists to “think frat houses” for our target audience, Woody took the mandate to heart. He’d show up in wild outfits, butcher sports names and write a daily yuk-yuk slogan on a chalkboard visible in his studio.

And I was so appalled by his act, I went after him. Every day. I didn’t really care about ESPN’s audience — it was one of my three media jobs — but the ratings climbed each year, so much that the pseudo-intellects in Bristol were too busy counting profits from the show to turn up their noses at us.

Well, I ran across a report in SportsBusiness Journal last week that published the most recent 2013 numbers for “ATH.” In three years, viewership has dropped to a stunning 763,000 and, at one point, fell as low as 747,000. That’s a slide of almost 200,000, an unheard-of ratings erosion for a longstanding show at the World Wide Leader. Yes, more folks are watching ESPN programs on DVRs and mobile apps, but still — 200,000 FEWER VIEWERS are watching the show live at 5. And don’t tell me eyeballs are going to Fox Sports 1, MLB Network and the NBC Sports Network, because numbers for their shows in the same time slot are cricket-minimal.

Sorry, but I have no choice but to conclude this: The difference between 943,000 watching in 2010 and 763,000 watching now is … me. I’m not on the show. I tune in from time to time, and candidly, though I love the producers and panelists and even the punk-ass host who always muted me, it’s kind of boring now. Everyone is smiling. Everyone is getting along. Everyone is letting Woody get away with being Woody.

For more details, read my corresponding Open Letter elsewhere on the mariottishow.com site. A high-ranking ESPN executive told me earlier this year, during dinner in Malibu, that “ATH” also needed more diversity on the panel. High-ranking ESPN executives tend to think every person on the air is an interchangeable part, but in this case, I am pleased to report they’re wrong. When you’re the biggest sports network on earth and arguably the biggest network period, there is no excuse for losing large chunks of late-afternoon audience on the blowtorch.

And the beautiful thing? No one can mute me for saying it.