Ever since SBJ reported the numbers of ESPN's Q2 ratings reaching multi-year lows and being down by almost one third, the spin has come faster and thicker than any great political campaign. Detractors of ESPN see it as a sign of Bristol's crumbling empire, especially with the arrival next month of Fox Sports 1. Then there's supporters of ESPN and ESPN PR that are quick to call it a blip on the radar and a fluke occurrence. You know something hits close to home when ESPN becomes self-aware and officially responds to a news story about themselves. That happened with a response to the ratings posted yesterday on its Front Row website.
ESPN says the low Q2 ratings are a "rare aberration" and most all of the blame can be placed on the NBA Playoffs not having as high a numbers (translation: we were stuck with the Spurs instead of the Heat for the Conference Finals) and also the fact that the Confederations Cup didn't do as strongly as Euro 2012 for the network:
The reason for the drop? It is largely attributable to the end of 2012’s NBA lock-out shortened schedule being particularly strong.
You might recall the end of the season last year was back-loaded with a big increase in highly rated games (23 over a month in 2012 versus eight in 2013). This was combined with fewer Conference Finals contests (seven from the Eastern Conference in 2012 compared to three in the 2013 Western Conference). The lack of major market teams’ appearances on ESPN — in 2012 the Lakers and Heat combined for 11 ESPN appearances but just two in 2013 — also factors in.
Boston was featured in 10 2012 playoffs games but only two in 2013, resulting in fewer marquee players in marquee cities to drive viewership. In all, ESPN had 31 fewer NBA games, which not only affected game ratings but also hurt studio shows that routinely get a post-game lift.
Additionally in 2012, ESPN benefitted from 21 Euro Championship matches. This year, ESPN had the Confederations Cup, but it was only about half as many matches with lesser national interest.
“Last quarter was a rare aberration and we expect our demographic delivery to return to normal levels in the second half of 2013,” said ESPN Senior VP of Research and Analytics, Artie Bulgrin.
I'm reminded of the quote about lies, damned lies, and statistics that certainly applies in this case. What's the truth about ESPN's declining ratings? It's impossible to say at this point because we don't have all the numbers. Without the data from ESPN's 24/7 operation we can't know for sure what it all means. We do know last quarter ESPN's non-NBA programming averaged 632k viewers, down from 720k the year before. Yet, ESPN doesn't release data for SportsCenter or its studio shows that constitute the majority of programming hours. Are those sources of significant decline or is it other live events? Right now we just have a few pieces of the puzzle. Until that day comes, all that's left is speculation over just how worried ESPN should be about their current ratings.