SBJ's Austin Karp put together a helpful table of all the major sports networks' ratings in the second quarter of the year (April-June) and are there ever some fascinating statistics. Namely, ESPN's ratings are trending downward at a steep enough rate to take notice. Compared to the same time last year, ESPN's primetime ratings are down 32%. A third of the mothership's primetime audience just disappeared. Vanished! In a year!
Now, much of this primetime ratings decline can be attribtued to the monster numbers Heat-Celtics pulled in last year during the Eastern Conference Finals, but that doesn't tell near the whole story. The 1.3 million viewers averaged were ESPN's lowest in primetime in seven years. We're talking about the days long ago when Skip Bayless was a mere columnist and the network aired Bonds on Bonds. (Just imagine those two forces coming together on a national stage, yeesh.) Those kind of numbers can't be blamed solely on the San Antonio Spurs.
Furthermore, ESPN's 24 hour viewership also suffered declines from the previous year down 20% from 892k to an average of 715k. Again, this was a multi-year low going back to 2007. And ESPN wasn't the only Bristol network to see drops. ESPN2 also fell 12% in primetime and 9% in total viewers.
Where are these declines coming from? Part of the explanation seems to be a marketplace where sports fans have more options than ever before. Viewers appear to be switching to more league and sport affiliated channels to get the coverage they desire. While ESPN suffered sharp declines from year to year, several networks posted notable percentage gains. Take a look at some of these increases:
MLBN: +20% in primetime; +14% total day
NBCSN: +17% in primetime; +18% total day
Fuel: +15% primetime; +18% total day
Fox Soccer: +11% primetime; +15% total day
Golf Channel: +8% total day
NFLN: +7% total day
Aside from ESPN, only Speed and NBATV were flat or declined amongst the non-ESPN networks tracked by SBJ. (For what it's worth, ESPNEWS increased 8% in primetime and it'll be interesting to see how that changes with the network's evolution moving forward.)
The truth is that none of those gains bring those networks anywhere close to ESPN's viewership totals, but the trends are moving in the right direction. Of most interest is NBCSN posting record viewership numbers in primetime thanks to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and their impressive ratings. In a non-Olympic year, that's pivotal for the young network. Year to date, NBC is up 14% in total viewers, which is a very encouraging sign for slow, steady growth at the peacock, especially given their struggle for eyeballs and awareness. Golf Channel also had record viewership in the quarter for total viewers.
Another reason could be sports fans tiring of ESPN and rejecting some of their content by actively seeking alternatives. While live game coverage remains excellent, SportsCenter desperately needs tinkering beyond pointless debates and analysis segments. Seriously, who in their right mind would care to watch Herm Edwards break down Colin Kaepernick wearing a Dolphins hat as if it's a real story???
As if there weren't enough hyenas looking to nip and claw at ESPN's dominance and get a little piece of TV fandom already, Fox Sports 1 looms on the horizon as the most formidable foe to the empire. If viewers are actively seeking another option, FS1 could become a new home for them and ESPN's ratings could continue to drop as more and more competitors and legitimate alternatives rise up. Chances are FS1's audience will come from ESPN and not those viewers that are already committed to the likes of MLB/NFL Net and the specialized channels.
The decreases in ratings would be alarming for most any network... but ESPN isn't just any network. They're a global Conglom-o worth tens of billions of dollars and still have a near monopoly on the American sports scene. Let's take a deep breath and realize their place on top of the mountain isn't going anywhere soon. ESPN's drop in total viewership of 177k is larger than any other network... except for ESPN2 of course. ESPN's average audience is still four and a half times larger than any other network.
If one adds the audiences of all the networks together, the ESPN family of networks (mothership, deuce, news and U) still outdraw all other sports cable networks combined 1.07 million - 675k average viewers. So no, Bristol isn't in an uncontrolled panic with martial law in the ESPN cafeteria and Mike Greenberg building a fallout shelter. Should ESPN be worried? Absolutely. Any time competitors begin eating into your market share it's cause for concern. However, even with these declining numbers and the much balleyhooed layoffs it's enough only to loosen some of the chains of ESPN's stronghold. But let's check these numbers again in a year. If ESPN drops another 15-20% while other networks continue to rise in viewership and FS1 increases Speed's audience significantly, then there may be blood.
I just don't understand the Jemele Hill thing. She is everywhere on that network. She is neither informative or entertaining. Not that it matters, but I am female.
They have only themselves to blame, they went away from being a legit sports reporting and highlights network and sold out to this wave of "debate" shows where people sit across from each other and argue at the top of their lungs. Then in an effort to fill air time they started "creating" stories by covering a topic to absurd lengths, (Tebow is a perfect example) so that in fact their coverage became the story and the reason to cover it. Viewers are sick of that crap.
There are just too many outlets now to watch what you want to see. Five years ago, if I wanted MLB & NFL news, I turned on ESPN and waited for it to come up on SportsCenter. Now I can just change the channel to MLBN or NFLN and have instant gratification. The rise of QUALITY programming on those two networks were the beginning of the decline of ESPN. Oh yeah, that and all the "leftist" BS!
I used to watch Sportscenter every night...The anchors made it entertaining..then they started spending a week on Manti Teo, Farve, Tebow...and breaking down everything..and all the other networks started copying..I also don't watch the 7 hours of NFL pregame on every station and the 8 hours of postgame...I don't need everything broken down..I just want to watch the game I don't need to watch the coaches film with Jaworski
ESPN, and all these networks for that matter, have 24 hours of programming to fill. Many of these shows are exactly that: "filler." With no real need or sense of necessary watching. ESPN will hire the latest jocks that retire for analysis. They have no media background. Most are not worth listening to. They bring nothing but their "name" to the table. As if I really give a darn what they say or think. At some point, the loss of viewers would seem a foregone conclusion. I mean how much of these "filler" can one swallow?
ESPN has taken a decided Leftist political tone, which is something NO ONE wants from a 'sports' station. Then there are the 'too-full-of-themselves' media hacks whose faces and voices become utterly tiresome to watch and listen to. These people know who they are, but there's an air of 'entitlement' with each and every one of them.
I'm curious if WatchESPN has something to do with this. Our world is becoming increasingly digital, there's probably many people now watching ESPN through such means, which is not reflected in the ratings.
Also, that number could be lower if it weren't for the fact that satellite TVers still don't have WatchESPN.
Fox is the other $Billions network and will hurt the worldwide leader where it hurts... in the pocket. These numbers quoted reflect USA viewership and are a good indication of trending.
It would be interesting to see the international numbers during this period - for comparison. Fox has 4 or more channels airing in Latin America, Europe, Asia - ESPN has 3. However viewship patterns differ greatly from the US as Soccer, Rugby, Cricket, Basketball (both int'l and NBA) appear to be the top views. Fox soccer airs 24-7 and NBA games and the playoffs are a regular Spring-Summer showing.
Also, I think the fact that they have First Take and then replay First Take and then sometimes have a Best of First Take says it all. For what? Maybe, they should replay a game that they have from the night before. I mean whats the point of having SportsCenter on all day? They have it on all day and still don't give you all the highlights.
It's not necessary to have SportsCenter on all day. How much can you watch of SportsCenter a day? To be fair, I did have to watch SportsCenter this morning to get the score of the Mets game but once I got it, I didn't stick around.
Great article, as always Matt. For the most part, during the day I avoid ESPN, I do watch College Football Live, NFL Live, and I've been a loyal Around the Horn and PTI fan for years mainly because those shows stay consistent.
The problem like the others have said is that they're trying to be something that they're not. First Take was a great show, I say was because it's now the Skip/StephenA Who Can Scream Louder show.
I like that NBCSN is making inroads as well as the Golf Channel, which has improved a lot. The NFL Network has been solid.
I think Fox Sports 1 can be a good competitor not in the live sports but in the other things like the new Fox Sports Live, if that can be viable competitor to Sportscenter, ESPN will have no choice but to change their way of thinking.
I think these numbers just scream panic in Bristol. What made ESPN the force that it has become is that whenever possible the average sports viewer is naturally drawn to a single source for diverse sports news. ESPN has always been convenient and efficient in providing the most amount of sports news in the shortest amount of time, compared to its competition at the time. Anyone who has ever studied marketing or consumer sciences that consumers flock to the most convenient and efficient alternative.
What these numbers show now is that people are willing to visit multiple singular sports news sources, which is more time consuming, less convenient, and less efficient, than watch ESPN for their sports news. In essence, viewers are literally going out of their way to seek sub-optimal alternatives to ESPN than to actually watch ESPN. That's not a good place for ESPN to be living.
The emergence of Fox Sports 1 poses a very real threat to ESPN, so long as FS1 doesn't royally choke and stay disciplined to providing what the consumer is looking for: the ESPN of 5-10 years ago. The formula hasn't changed much at all since ESPN created it, it just needs to be followed and kept honest.
What I can't stand is that it seems like anybody that is on ESPN at any time thinks they are so much more important than everybody else just because they're on ESPN. That arrogance just drives me nuts. Other than college football and basketball, the only thing I consistently watch on ESPN anymore is Highly Questionable.
Something not mentioned is the amount of content available online. I would think most serious sports fans, especially those that may wager, find their best info online. The real breaking news now occurs on twitter and for those looking to get the best of it that's where the edge is.
Pretty simple, I think - ESPN down 20%, ESPNEWS up 8%. Give us news and highlights, not "Embrace Debate." Take your own advice ESPN: Numbers Never Lie
It's because of these show that breakdown defenses and schemes that make the Jersey wearing drunk douchebags that go to games think they can coach in the NFL
@ChrisNH Where did that come from?
@Davis10 That's because in their lives, making it on the WWFT is the pinnacle of their professional lives. They went to Syracuse with a 1,000 other four-letter network wannabees and was one of the 3-4 chosen to get over-worked and under-paid.
@RadetskiJ Agreed. Outside of Baseball Tonight, ESPN is mostly unwatchable. SportsCenter has become a joke, anything involving Berman has long since been a joke, College Football Live is a joke. ESPN spends a lot on rights to different leagues, yet dedicates a lot of air time to poker and women's softball. Can't imagine that strategy is terribly lucrative.
@Michael Collins And I can't wait for it to be gone. I get sick of hearing Cowherd (who I know AA doesn't really care for to begin with, but he defends Romo, so I don't think he's completely nuts) say, "You people want to hear about Tebow, the numbers say it."