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Sports Media

Fantasy is surely part of reality

Impact cannot be easily dismissed

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / August 26, 2011

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Although huge ratings for NFL preseason games have become the norm in recent seasons, there’s still a hint of amazement here when an exhibition game ends up the highest-rated sports program of the weekend.

That was the case last weekend, when NBC’s “Sunday Night Football’’ matchup between the Cowboys and Chargers earned a 7.1 overnight rating, handily winning the time slot (second-place CBS had a 3.5 in the same period) and topping all weekend sports telecasts in the Nielsen ratings.

Perhaps the sizable audiences make more sense when another factor is considered: fantasy football. Various surveys estimate that 25 million-35 million people participated in fantasy football in 2010, and the suspicion here is that 25 million-35 million people want to have bragging rights as the champion of their league.

Sure, the majority of viewers probably tune in with the desire to exhale and enjoy some actual football after the lockout threatened to delay the season. But there is no doubt the NFL has a symbiotic relationship with fantasy football. And those Nielsen numbers are enhanced by would-be general managers who, looking for the draft-day edge on the know-it-all in the next cubicle, want to see for themselves whether Dallas quarterback Tony Romo is healthy or Chargers running back Ryan Mathews looks ready to put a lost rookie season behind him.

While fantasy sports have achieved mass appeal, they still remain a relatively underplayed topic in some media, particularly relative to how many people are into them. When WEEI’s “Mut and Merloni’’ midday show had ESPN fantasy sports guru Matthew Berry appear for an engaging and informative segment Wednesday, it almost felt like a eureka moment in recognizing that there is a listenership for fantasy sports talk.

While it should be noted that 98.5 The Sports Hub utilizes producer and occasional host Nick Cattles as a fantasy sports resource and also has Dave Richard of CBS Sports on “The Toucher and Rich Show,’’ there are few, if any, with the cachet, credibility, and readership of Berry.

“Lou [Merloni] and I are huge fantasy football fans. We believe our listeners are huge fantasy football fans,’’ said cohost Mike Mutnansky in an e-mail, noting that the program sought out Berry. “Matthew Berry is a great ambassador for fantasy football and we jumped at the chance to have him on.

“And the response was awesome. Between the calls, texts, and tweets, it felt like a home run.’’

Perhaps the better analogy is a touchdown, but the conclusion remains the same: More quality fantasy sports talk, even for a segment or two a week, could be something that gives a fledgling program like “Mut and Merloni’’ a real identity.

It could be worse Colleague Greg A. Bedard expressed frustration in his Sunday NFL notes with the quality of preseason Patriots telecasts, a sentiment shared by several readers who e-mailed to this address the past two weeks. While there is no excuse for the almost casual personnel and pronunciation mistakes from play-by-play man Don Criqui and analyst Randy Cross, there are worse pairings around the NFL, particularly in the preseason.

Criqui, much like Gil Santos in the radio booth, sometimes lags behind the play but still has the classic pipes. And Cross, the former 49ers offensive lineman, is at least genial and is genuinely insightful when he discusses line play or compares and contrasts Tom Brady to his former teammate, Joe Montana.

They’re not Pat Summerall and John Madden in their heyday, but neither gives us Beasley Reece flashbacks, either.

For those of you who don’t enjoy the broadcast, at least there is this: It would be a surprise if Criqui and Cross called the Patriots during the upcoming season.

While the Patriots will appear on CBS 10 times, Cross and Criqui are at the bottom of the depth chart among the network’s eight broadcast tandems. Given the Patriots’ marquee status - they play in prime time four times, twice on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football’’ and twice on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football’’ - expect CBS’s top pairing of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms to be familiar faces in Foxborough once again.

They will call the Patriots’ Week 2 matchup with the Chargers, while the great Marv Albert - calling NFL games on television for the first time since 1997 - and analyst Rich Gannon will handle the Week 3 matchup at Buffalo.

Step in right direction Maybe LeBron James is becoming more introspective as his 27th birthday approaches in December. Maybe he actually was humbled a bit by “The Decision’’ and the backlash that positioned him and the Heat - apparently to his surprise - as both front-runners and villains. Maybe he’s just getting public relations advice. Or maybe too much is being read into James’s hilarious tweet Wednesday, when he wrote: “Had a dream my hairline was back! Woke up and went to bathroom, turned on light slowly. Same ol’ story. Damn! Lol. #wishfulthinking.’’ But this much is certain: Genuine self-deprecation will go a long way toward restoring some of the popularity James lost en route from Cleveland to Miami . . . Jen Royle, a reporter and pregame host for Baltimore station 105.7 The Fan’s Orioles and Ravens coverage, is a serious candidate for one of the vacancies at NESN. A Boston native, Royle has also covered the Yankees for the YES Network and the Orioles for MASN. Bringing her back to her hometown would be a savvy move for NESN, which bade farewell to Kathryn Tappen and will do the same to Jade McCarthy.

Funny business When “Toucher and Rich,’’ revealed its plan to have the hosts engage in a tournament-style rap battle, the hunch was that it would be either a huge hit or epic disaster. The hunch was correct. The project, the brainchild of cohost Rich Shertenlieb, concluded yesterday, and it was a relentless source of hilarity. The humor was good-natured (save for that of Andy Gresh, who seemed to have a hint of real anger in teeing off on Michael Felger, which actually made it funnier), with the typical tone of each rap emphasizing the quirks of the fellow 98.5 personality a particular host was “battling’’ that day. It also reiterated a fundamental difference between The Sports Hub and WEEI: A willingness to laugh at yourself for the sake of entertainment. It’s doubtful that WEEI would attempt to counter with a musical water-cooler topic of its own, though perhaps John Dennis is getting the band back together for an acoustic version of “New England, the Patriots, and We’’ as we speak.

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.

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