ESPN's ratings have been a significant topic of discussion this summer.  With NBC Sports Network strengthening their position and Fox Sports 1 looking to challenge Bristol directly, not to mention several league networks drawing fans, ESPN is facing more competition than ever before.  Although the network was coming off of rating highs in the early parts of 2011 and 2012, 2013 brought multi-year lows in the ratings department.  In the second quarter of 2013 ESPN was down 32% in primetime and 20% in total day average viewership compared to the year before.  On the other hand, NBCSN, Golf Channel, MLB Network, NFL Network, and Fox Soccer all saw increases in year-to-year viewership.

In a sign they wanted to control the message about declining ratings, ESPN quickly responded to say the ratings news was a "rare aberration."  The network explained declining ratings were thanks to the absence of Euro 2012 and more importantly, the lack of a classic Eastern Conference Finals series.  In 2012, Heat-Celtics set cable records over the course of 7 games.  

What's the truth about ESPN's ratings?  Is it indeed a rare aberration or a sign that ESPN may be vulnerable to competitors?  AA has learned more detailed information about ESPN's ratings that may provide some answers.

* Through the first 2 quarters of 2013, ESPN is averaging 824,000 viewers for its Total Day 6A-6A. This is the lowest since the first half of 2008 and down 14% from last year.

* SportsCenter ratings are down across the board.

– The early evening edition of SportsCenter at 6 PM ET averaged 665,000 viewers through 6/30, an 8% decline from last year.

– Perhaps most surprisingly, the primetime 11 PM ET SportsCenter averaged 870,000 viewers through 6/30, down 21% from last year.

– Additionally, according to the anonymous TVSportsRatings, daytime live editions of SportsCenter are down 12% from last year.  Richard Deitsch reported the average viewership was 405,000 viewers through May 12 and the ESPN2 afternoon lineup of SportsNation and Highly Questionable were down 22% and 15% versus last year.

* Compared to last year, live event viewership is down.  The biggest factor is indeed the NBA Conference Finals.  In 2013, ESPN aired a sleep-inducing 4 game sweep by the Spurs over the Grizzlies.  In 2012, ESPN had rights to the classic Heat-Celtics series.  Spurs-Grizzlies averaged 4.9 million viewers over 4 games.  Heat-Celtics averaged 10.1 million viewers over 7 games.  That's a massive difference in total viewers considering ESPN had 3 extra games last year at over double the viewership.

* ESPN's 2013 Wimbledon coverage was down 15% from last year (981,000 – 835,000) thanks in large part to many upsets in the first few rounds of the tournament.  It's also worth noting that 2012's ratings were particularly strong, even besting numbers NBC did on broadcast TV.

* The BCS on ESPN was slightly down from an average of 16.7 million to 15.1 million.

What does it all mean?  It's no secret SportsCenter has received plenty of criticism here and elsewhere for a decline in quality and relevance.  This is especially true for the live daytime editions, but has begun to affect the brand as a whole.  However, the primetime 11 PM flagship edition still often maintains a high quality and has a long list of popular anchors like Scott Van Pelt, John Buccigross, Robert Flores, Steve Levy, and others.  To see that it has the largest decline versus daytime and 6 PM is a shock.

The reasoning is likely a balance between criticism the show has faced, increased competition, and declining lead-in ratings.  Those highly rated NBA playoff games certainly have a big impact on the 11 PM edition because live sports lead-ins boost ratings – after all, the highest rated episode of SportsCenter came after the infamous Fail Mary on Monday Night Football.  Live events may explain part of the 11 PM decline, but don't fully explain declines at 6 PM and throughout the daytime.  Those dips are indicative of a more systematic decline in the SportsCenter brand that may concern ESPN, especially with Fox Sports Live in its rearview mirror.  

Another major takeaway from these numbers and ESPN's ratings being down is the importance of live events above all.  ESPN aired 20 more regular season games and 10 more college football bowl games in the Nielsen year to year splits from 2012 to 2013 and those live events will always draw significantly higher ratings than studio shows.  That's also why there's been such a great fluctuation from year to year with ESPN seeing highs in 2011 and 2012 and multi-year lows in 2013.  It's also why NBC is willing to ship out $4.4 billion to NASCAR for their rights at a 40% increase in fees in spite of ratings being down for that sport.

A month ago we asked how worried ESPN should be about declining ratings.  The answer appears to be a cautious yes.  Time will tell just how the chips of live sports, studio programming, and especially SportsCenter fall with the increased competition of Fox Sports 1 and others a year from now.