State of the Sports TV Ratings Landscape

I didn’t realize until recently that Son of the Bronx has been putting up ratings for every single program on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, NBCSN, Golf Channel, and the networks for the three undisputed major sports. Here’s hoping he’ll have Fox Sports 1 numbers by the time that network re-launches in August, because if so it’ll become possible (even if only after the fact) to run a sports version of the daily scoreboards here.

Of course, when I tried to do my own version the time required to create it quickly spun out of hand. Still, let’s see what we can learn from the ratings for a sample week, April 15-21 (admittedly, possibly a bad week due to the Boston Marathon bombings screwing up the schedule on Monday and the X Games on Friday, and because I just skimmed the tables a lot of this analysis is pretty haphazard). Here are the ratings for the ESPNs, and here are the others:

  • About six months ago, Awful Announcing ran a post warning of the challenge viewer “gravitation” to ESPN posed for any potential competitor, and while I was skeptical at the time (since the occasion was people failing to find the baseball playoffs on TBS, which had more to do with no one knowing their shitty Sunday afternoon package even exists), it’s hard to dispute after looking at the numbers. During college basketball season, it’s rare for even a single game on ESPN2 to beat a single game, certainly two, on ESPN; it seems like anything that gets put on ESPN gets good ratings by default. Indeed, in general the highest rated programs on ESPN2 get beat by all but the lowest-rated programs on ESPN; even a late-night re-air of an NBA game beat every single non-NHRA program on ESPN2, and it was the lowest-rated re-air of any kind I could find. And ESPN2’s distribution is actually only marginally worse than regular ESPN, and it typically beats all of the others fairly handily on its own.
  • As such, I think a lot of the hand-wringing over First Take is overblown. Yes, it’s ESPN2’s highest-rated studio show, and yes, there have been times when it’s beaten SportsCenter on ESPN (including Tuesday of this week)… but SportsCenter ratings seem to drop substantially when it goes from re-airs of the previous day’s show to new live editions, which makes me wonder if that has anything to do with the alleged “First Take-ization” of SportsCenter. Moreover, at least when I looked during college basketball season, the entire ESPN2 schedule seemed to undergo wild fluctuations where the order of shows remained the same from day-to-day but their exact numbers varied wildly. When they had the half-hour edition of First Take later in the day on regular ESPN, it was quite possibly the lowest point on the entire ESPN schedule, maybe even dragging down Outside the Lines with it. Maybe First Take is popular because it’s just different from the standard-issue SportsCenter on at the same time and it’s on later than Mike and Mike so more people are up for it.
  • DLHQ is quite possibly doing worse than any other ESPN2 studio show, while Numbers Never Lie did better than Mike and Mike at one point in the week. That’s just depressing. Most of what ESPN2 puts on at 3 ET does better than DLHQ at 3:30, as does SportsNation after, so I have a feeling Dan LeBatard’s long-term prospects are Highly Questionable.
  • I got the sense that college basketball games on NBCSN, in general, did worse than ESPNU games, though that might have something to do with the lack of major conferences on the former, but that once the NHL started NBCSN does better top to bottom than ESPNU, with hockey usually but not always beating basketball. Generally, the Dan Patrick Show beats the Herd, but DP seems to be more volatile, and some episodes of the Box Score actually beat the actual radio shows airing before them. Outdoor programs continue to be the elephant in the living room for NBCSN; it’s hard to justify weekend editions of the Lights given the numbers, and sometimes it doesn’t even beat the infomercials running immediately before, though 6 AM seems to be more popular than later hours. During college basketball season it seemed like 8 AM was substantially more popular than earlier hours, which may be a combination of Dan Patrick and West Coast viewers tuning in at a time that actually remotely works for them; if the latter, that may be an argument in favor of extending the show backwards to 3 AM, midnight on the West Coast.
  • Even by ESPNU standards, UNITE was doing so horribly during college basketball season that ratings not only dropped substantially when it came on, they rebounded when a game re-air came on immediately afterwards, like people were avoiding it like the plague. Now at least some episodes seem to be doing on par with the Herd, and early-morning re-airs (especially those leading in to the Herd) aren’t beating the original midnight airing.
  • All of MLBN’s games fell between NBATV’s two Monday games. Most of MLBN’s daytime studio shows seem to be doing better than anything on NBCSN or ESPNU, but even in the midst of the offseason NFLN has them both beat. You have to scroll down a pretty good distance to find NFLAM, and it’s still beating almost anything on NBCSN or ESPNU. But Morning Drive on Golf Channel is running pretty close to if not beating NFLAM, and considering the struggles NBCSN has had with any studio programming in prime the success of Golf Channel’s original programming is pretty stunning.

I’m adding a new category, because I might start doing more sports TV ratings posts in the future, given all the information available here and elsewhere.

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