http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/sports/13694841.htm ABC shouldn't expect XL ratings BY ED SHERMANChicago Tribune The ingredients are all there: Two teams from relatively small markets, with one having little or no national following. Neither team has a marquee player of Peyton Manning's caliber. Mix in a bad game, or even worse, a blowout, and it could lead to the lowest-rated Super Bowl since the early 1970s. The upcoming Seattle-Pittsburgh battle will put the Super Bowl to the test. Does the big game need to have big-name teams and players to be successful? Will viewers watch regardless of who's playing? Forty now is the magic number. Given the less-than-ideal matchup, there's speculation this could be the first Super Bowl to record less than a 40 rating since San Francisco's 55-10 victory over Denver in 1989. That game did a 39 rating, the only time it fell below 40 since 1971. While ABC remains optimistic, David Blum of Eisner Communications in Baltimore said his company projects the ratings will be in the upper 30s. "It's going to be toward the low end ratings-wise," said Blum, a senior vice president for Eisner. ABC would have preferred to take its chances with an Indianapolis-New York Giants showdown between the Manning brothers. The Bears and the three-time champion New England Patriots also were high on the network's wish list. Instead, ABC got stuck with a Seattle team whose most recognizable figure might be its coach, Mike Holmgren. The Seahawks and running back Shaun Alexander may have had terrific seasons, but news of their exploits has been slow to filter back to the other side of the Rocky Mountains. The Steelers, meanwhile, have some allure as one of the league's old-line, traditional teams, and the Jerome Bettis homecoming/possible retirement story figures to get milked heavily before the game. However, when it comes to farewells, Bettis isn't John Elway. Early indicators don't look promising. Both of Sunday's conference title games saw a dramatic drop in ratings. The Steelers' 34-17 win over Denver on CBS was off 14 percent in major markets, and the Seahawks' 34-14 blowout of Carolina on Fox was down 17 percent. The one-sided scores obviously limited the audiences. They also failed to whet the appetite for the bigger game coming up in Detroit. The Super Bowl, though, isn't just any other game. Despite dire predictions, ABC remains bullish that the game will deliver its usual strong rating. "The Super Bowl has proved to be remarkably consistent no matter the matchup," said Artie Bulgrin, senior vice president for research and sales for ABC Sports and ESPN. The ratings for the last five Super Bowls have hovered between a 41.4 in 2004 to 40.4 in 2001 and 2002; 1 ratings point is worth just over 1 million homes. Last year, an estimated 133.7 million viewers tuned in to watch a portion of the New England-Philadelphia game. "What happens is about two-thirds of the people tune in to watch about two-thirds of the game," Bulgrin said. "That's remarkable by television standards." The Super Bowl has become a national reason to throw a party. This also is the one game in which people don't use their remotes during commercials. Unlike championship games in other sports, the Super Bowl has been immune to the big-name, big-team factor. Obviously it affected last year's World Series, which did the lowest rating ever. While Chicago was thrilled, having two non-traditional teams like the White Sox and Houston didn't spark the nation's interest. "With the World Series and the NBA Finals, you need to have the major markets," said Bob Williams, CEO of Chicago-based Burns Entertainment and Sports Marketing. "You need to have a Tiger Woods playing in the final group of the Masters. The Super Bowl is less affected than any other sport. It has such a strong hold on the public." Eisner's Blum predicts this matchup could be the exception. It needs a Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Jerry Rice to bring in viewers, Blum said. "You don't have any marquee players," he said. "Nobody really knows Seattle. The Steelers have some history, but the `Bus' (Bettis) is no `Fridge' (Williams Perry) when it comes to popularity." There are two factors that can influence the rating, both of which are out of ABC's control. A good, competitive game will keep viewers glued to their sets. The network better hope the Seahawks don't jump out to a 17-0 lead like they did Sunday. And then there's the weather. No, not in Detroit, but rather on the East Coast. "The NFL has been blessed with a lot of wintry, snowy days on the East Coast during past Super Bowls," Blum said. "It's been relatively nice this year. What would be really helpful is a nice, stay-at-home day out East on Super Bowl Sunday." .