Once again, Big Noon Kickoff and ESPN College GameDay are arguing about numbers. Once again, Big Noon Kickoff and ESPN College GameDay are arguing about numbers. (ESPN PR and Fox Sports PR.)

There have been many times over the years where more than one college football team has claimed a national title, citing different polls and rankings as a way to justify their claim. Now, we have college football pregame shows each claiming a title, with both Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff and ESPN College GameDay declaring themselves as “most-watched” for this past Saturday’s editions (both live from Ohio State-Michigan ahead of that game, which aired on Fox). And this ties into a long history of sports ratings arguments between those networks. First, here are those competing claims:

How in the world can an average audience of 2.34 million be the “most-watched” when the competition is touting 2.40 million, and both are using the same Nielsen ratings data? Well, as with most ratings information, there are plenty of ways to slice and dice it. The key caveat in Fox’s claim is “on any network.”

If we go over to Jon Lewis’ breakdowns at Sports Media Watch, we can see that the actual listed audience for all three hours (actually, 3:03, as they went to 12:03 p.m. ET, which we’ll get into later) of GameDay on ESPN was 2.325 million viewers. And that would be lower than the 2.34 million for all of Big Noon on Fox, so Fox’s claim of “most-watched college football pregame show on any network” is technically correct. (The best kind of correct.)

But ESPN has some additional numbers that they can build in that Fox does not. In particular, ESPN also simulcasts GameDay on ESPNU. So with all of their broadcasts factored in, the 2.401 million is accurate for how many people were watching. (For Nielsen levels of accuracy, of course; there are still always all sorts of debates about those numbers, and they are prone to later adjustment at times, and so on.)

But these numbers are comparable to Fox’s numbers. And if Fox decided to simulcast Big Noon on FS1, they could absolutely work in those numbers as well. (They have done that at points in the past, but do not typically do that at the moment.) So while Fox is correct with “the most-watched college football pregame show on any network,” they did not have “the most-watched college football pregame show.”

And we tend to accept simulcast numbers as part of the actual audience for an event. And that’s especially true when it’s a strict simulcast versus an alternate feed of the event. So there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to disqualify ESPN for getting some of those numbers from ESPNU. Fox can absolutely promote their “most-watched on any network” claim. But how much that actually means is up to the reader.

There’s also a debate to be had here over just what counts as a “pregame show,” and that gets into the time debate discussed earlier. College GameDay went on until 12:03 p.m. ET, airing the national anthem from the Ohio State-Michigan game. Big Noon went further still, with that listing for the show running until the actual kick at 12:15 p.m. ET (at which time this transitioned to what was tagged as the game broadcast, which drew its own massive number of 19.07 million viewers, the highest CFB regular-season audience in 12 years).

Broken-down Nielsen data indicates that GameDay got an audience lift of 24,000 (three percent) over the to-noon average of 2,377,000 when those three extra minutes (before the ESPN feed went to game coverage of the Texas A&M Aggies-LSU Tigers game, and the ESPNU feed went to game coverage of the Troy Trojans and Southern Miss Golden Eagles) were considered. Meanwhile, Fox got a lift of 704,000 (42 percent) over the to-noon average of 1,673,000 when their extra 15 minutes of Big Noon were worked in.

What that actually means can be debated. From the ESPN perspective, the biggest Fox audience came after GameDay was done and they’d moved on to game coverage, and they still won the head-to-head battle of pregame shows. From the Fox perspective, Big Noon is set up in a way to take the pregame show right into the game airing on their network (including closing with picks), so this is a legitimate part of the show and should be counted as such, and should be considered in overall show-versus-show numbers. Readers can decide where they fall on those arguments, but it is worth pointing out where these different numbers come from.

Maybe the most interesting thing here is how this fits into the overall discussion of Fox and ESPN ratings. The last decade has seen some notable back-and-forth there, especially around the 2013 launch of the then-Fox Sports 1 (now FS1). That channel was initially promoted as an ESPN “alternative,” but went away from that over time.

One of the few areas where FS1 did find some head-to-head ratings success versus ESPN was with Undisputed at first, though. That show’s launch in September 2016 had it sometimes beating SportsCenter on main ESPN, but not First Take on ESPN2. As at least somewhat of a response to that, ESPN moved First Take to their main network in January 2017. That move saw immediate drops for the combination of First Take and SportsCenter, but it has led to First Take solidly beating Undisputed for most of the time since then.

Since then, the main ratings battle ESPN and Fox have really engaged in is about college football pregame shows, especially since Fox’s 2019 emphasis of their Big Noon Saturday noon Eastern kickoff window. With that, Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff started posting peak numbers not far off ESPN’s show-long numbers even that first year. And that first year saw the start of a real rivalry between the shows, and some arguments close to what we’re now seeing, with Fox claiming victory based on an 11 a.m. to kickoff (12:06 p.m. ET) window ignoring simulcasts and ESPN arguing for the full show window, but the end at noon.

There have been plenty of arguments since then along similar lines. But while it’s debatable if Big Noon has ever actually beaten GameDay for an overall window (this is the closest they’ve been, and it does still come with the caveats given above), it’s certainly gotten much closer.

And along the way, Big Noon Kickoff has definitely established itself as an alternative. And that’s especially true in the last two years of going on the road each week (rather than for only a few select games). And it’s taken some quite different tacks to GameDay. And it’s done so at a time while GameDay is undergoing its own seismic McAfee shift, which has turned some viewers off.

So it seems clear that Big Noon Kickoff has made progress in closing the gap on GameDay. Even the ratings arguments now, while they bear many similarities to the 2019 ones (simulcasts, show end times), are now about the entire show’s average audience numbers rather than the show’s peak audience numbers. (Fox often wins the peak audience now, as they did handily this week, from 4.36 million to 3.2 million.)

Fox PR is still perhaps being more aggressive with their head-to-head ratings claims than a look at the data without trying to make a particular point would really support. And their claims deserve a thorough comb from the outside. But they have much firmer ground to stand on than they used to, especially this week around an incredible game audience. They only “beat” GameDay for a very specific value of “beat” (excluding simulcasts, fully including the to-kickoff portion), and one that doesn’t seem fully reasonable overall (especially the simulcast exclusion), but they definitely got close. And they illustrated that this pregame show battle is much more of an actual rivalry than it’s ever been.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.