Mike Francesa and Michael Kay.

It used to be a foregone conclusion that Mike Francesa’s afternoon drive show on WFAN would beat Michael Kay’s competing show on ESPN New York in the ratings, but that rivalry has become much closer in the last few years. In fact, if you go strictly by ESPN press releases, Kay (seen at right above eating a Whopper on-air in 2018 thanks to a bet) has won the last two books. But those releases are a highly-slanted way of looking at actual listener numbers, as the Nielsen measurements they cite include streaming for ESPN New York (because their streaming feed has the same ads) and ignore it for WFAN (which sells different ads on its stream). ESPN’s release strategy here was widely roasted in April at the end of the first quarter book, where they claimed Kay’s show “beats” Francesa’s (thanks to a 5.9 share of men 25-54 with streaming included to Francesa’s 5.5 over-the-air number; Francesa (seen at left above falling asleep on-air in 2012) posted a 6.2 with streaming included), and they’ve now done the exact same thing for the second quarter book:

According to Nielsen, for the second consecutive ratings book, 98.7FM ESPN New York’s The Michael Kay Show beat WFAN in afternoon drive among men 25-54 from 3-6:30 p.m. ET in the New York market. The Michael Kay Show garnered a 6.4 share, making it the top sports show during afternoon drive, compared to 6.1 for WFAN.  The Nielsen spring ratings book ran from January 28 – June 19.

“We are really pleased that The Michael Kay Show has become the destination for New York sports fans,” said Tim McCarthy, senior vice president & general manager, 98.7FM. “Michael, Don (La Greca) and Peter (Rosenberg) will continue to serve these fans in the most entertaining way possible.”

First off, that release misstates the dates of the spring ratings book (it’s March 28-June 19). But more importantly, while the 6.4 is a nice gain for Kay, it’s still behind what Francesa actually posted in comparable numbers (over-the-air and streaming). Neil Best of Newsday has more there:

From 3 to 6:30 p.m., Francesa averaged 6.6 percent of the audience among men ages 25-54, a demographic both stations primarily use, according to data from Nielsen Audio. Kay averaged 6.4 and was second overall in the market.

The above figures include both over-the-air and streaming audiences.

It appeared two months into the ratings period that Francesa would win comfortably, but Kay had a better June, narrowing the gap to an even closer finish than in the winter, when Francesa led, 6.2 to 5.9. Last autumn, Francesa finished ahead of Kay, 6.4 to 5.8.

The weird thing here is that there is actually plenty for ESPN to legitimately brag about. Kay has closed the gap on Francesa in a big way (consider that the numbers were 6.8 to 5.5 last May, Francesa’s first month back on the air), and his audience continues to improve. And while the “beats” claim is spurious, there is actually an argument that any particular ad buy with ESPN New York reaches more people (because it’s heard over the air and streaming) than one on WFAN, and that’s a nice thing for ESPN New York’s ad department to promote. But ESPN’s insistence on using “beat” is going too far considering that they’re actually behind in listeners, and it just opens them and Kay up for mockery.

Of course, there is an argument that more people may actually be hearing Kay’s show despite the numbers here, as these numbers don’t include his simulcast on YES (which presumably draws in more people than Francesa’s simulcast on his own app). But the numbers for Francesa’s app aren’t public, and given that, the radio comparison is a more objective one; we know what ratings Nielsen gives these stations for both over-the-air and streaming broadcasts, and we can compare them in a way that counts both sides’ streaming, not just one that only includes the streaming numbers for ESPN.

It looks like there may be further interesting times ahead in the Kay-Francesa battle, even if it’s died down a bit at the moment. Kay underwent vocal cord surgery last week and is expected to be off air for about a month, while Francesa has been taking some of his usual summer vacation (even if he interrupted it briefly to interview Bud Selig). Meanwhile, as the New York Post‘s Andrew Marchand noted, there are some questions about what’s ahead at WFAN, especially for the “CMB” trio of Chris Carlin, Maggie Gray and Bart Scott.

That trio briefly replaced Francesa last year before he returned from “retirement,” then got shunted to the 1-3 p.m. slot to make way for him. But they’ve been putting up impressive numbers there (a 6.7 including streaming in this most recent book, almost double the 3.4 ESPN New York got for the national Stephen A. Smith Show in a similar time slot). And it’s still far from clear how long Francesa intends to stay with WFAN. But for now, he’s still beating Kay, even if ESPN PR would have you believe otherwise.

[Newsday/ESPN Press Room]

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.