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NFL Draft’s First Round Draws 1.3 Million Fewer Viewers Than 2010 on ESPN

ESPN’s telecast of the National Football League draft drew 1.3 million fewer viewers for this year’s first round than a year ago as the U.S.’s most-watched television sport goes through a labor dispute that threatens the 2011 season.

The Walt Disney Co. (DIS) unit attracted 6 million viewers, compared with 7.3 million for last year’s prime-time debut, according to fast national ratings released by ESPN.

The rating for last night’s telecast was 4.4, down 17 percent from 5.3 a year ago.

Last year’s draft, the first in prime time, brought ESPN the most viewers in its 31 years of broadcasting the event. The network said ratings rose 27 percent for its 14 1/2 hours of coverage on ESPN and ESPN2 after the league expanded the 2010 draft to three days and aired the first three rounds in prime time.

This year’s draft, which continues tonight and tomorrow at Radio City Music Hall in New York, is being complicated by the fight between owners and players over how to divide about $9 billion in revenue, the most of any sports league.

Commissioner Roger Goodell was booed by fans chanting “we want football” before the Carolina Panthers selected Auburn University quarterback Cam Newton with the first pick.

Goodell then greeted the No. 2 pick, Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller, one of 10 named plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit led by Super Bowl winning quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees that accuses the NFL of antitrust violations and wage fixing.

NFL owners shut down the U.S.’s most-watched sports league in March after the players’ union abandoned collective bargaining and filed the suit.

U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson this week ended the month-old player lockout and declined to delay implementing her decision while the league appeals. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis today granted the NFL’s request to temporarily stay Nelson’s decision.

To contact the reporter on this story: Aaron Kuriloff in New York at akuriloff@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net.

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