Lower temps heat up ratings for the NFL

| Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014, 7:09 p.m.

Ben Roethlisberger let it slip early in his Steelers career. The thought of playing the most important football game of the season in subfreezing temperatures left him ... well, cold.

“I don't like cold weather,” he said. “It's not like it's going to help us.”

While many of the NFL's players don't especially like frigid-weather football — especially quarterbacks, and one in particular named Peyton Manning — its fans' fascination with outdoor games in awful weather is evident.

As the temperature drops, the field freezes and the snow falls, the TV ratings elevate — network executives have told the league they secretly root for snow in cold-weather cities. So it only makes sense that the NFL is hoping for some snow, just not a paralyzing blizzard, for its first cold-weather Super Bowl next Sunday in suburban New York City.

Not coincidentally, the logo for the New York/New Jersey Super Bowl committee includes a snowflake.

Might players in this Super Bowl make snow angels in the end zone, as the Patriots did following their playoff overtime win over the Raiders in a blizzard 12 years ago?

“Some of our most memorable games are played in unusual weather circumstances,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. “Winter and cold (are) part of football. ... A little snow would be great for us.”

The signature game of the NFL's last half-century remains the Cowboys-Packers Ice Bowl league championship game on Dec. 31, 1967, when the game-time temperature in Green Bay was an unforgiving minus-13 — still the coldest for any league game.

It was a mind-numbing minus-18 by the time the Packers' Bart Starr scored from the 1 on a succeed-or-lose quarterback sneak with 16 seconds remaining. After the game, Packers linebacker Ray Nitschke's toenails fell off due to frostbite.

Speculation that there might be similar cold for the 49ers-Packers playoff game Jan. 5 (the temperature at kickoff was 5) helped draw 47.1 million viewers, or nearly five million more than for any previous wild-card game.

Clearly, America is enthralled by football played in excruciating cold, in ankle-deep snow, or on an ice rink-slippery field.

“Football in the cold — that's the way it's supposed to be,” said George P. Michael, a retired high school principal in Martinsburg, W.Va., who attended the most frigid Steelers game of recent vintage, the 2004 season AFC title game against New England.

“Football is a cold-weather game,” he said. “It's meant to be played in the rain, the mud, the snow. If you want a warm-weather sport, go watch a basketball game.”

It was 11 degrees at the opening kickoff for that Patriots-Steelers game at Heinz Field, but it felt even colder as a wind whipped off the three rivers.

Sometimes it's the weather right outside the front door, not inside the stadium, that creates massive audiences.

The Bengals-49ers Super Bowl on Jan. 24, 1982 in Pontiac, Mich., played as a massive snowstorm belted the East Coast that day, drew the highest ratings ever for an NFL game. Nearly half of the TV sets in the country were tuned into the game.

Weather forecasts for the first outdoor Super Bowl in a cold-weather clime are more inconsistent than Geno Smith's passes. But it appears likely that the previous low-temperature record for a Super Bowl (39 degrees in January 1972 at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans) will be broken in MetLife Stadium.

That might not be good news for Manning, the record-setting Broncos quarterback who is 0-4 in the playoffs when the temperature is 34 or below, with only four touchdown passes and nine interceptions. Overall in such games, including the regular season, he is 3-9 with 12 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions — and he is 2-8 when it is 32 or below. (When it's 81 or above? He's a near-unbeatable 14-1 with 36 TD passes and seven interceptions.)

Still, for all of the intrigue surrounding this non-dome, non-climate-controlled Super Bowl, Goodell isn't giving any signs there will be another one outdoors in the foreseeable future. Even if he plans to sit outside for this one.

These NFL's guidelines for a Super Bowl exclude all of its Northern cities, including Pittsburgh: a stadium capacity of at least 73,000, at least 19,000 premium-quality hotel rooms, a host committee that must spend substantially (New York/New Jersey is spending $70 million) and an average game-day temperature of 50.

Years of lobbying by New York interests were needed for the NFL to waive the policy on a one-time basis.

“(It's) obviously innovative and something new, but it's also unique because it's New York,” Goodell said. “Every city can't host a Super Bowl because of its sheer enormity. ... Will we look at other Super Bowls in cold-weather sites? I think we'll wait and make that evaluation later.”

So, for the first Super Bowl played on Groundhog Day, the NFL no doubt wants Punxsutawney Phil to pop out of his climate-controlled bunker and predict more bad weather — at least enough for one more chills-produce-thrills football day.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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