Yahoo Sports Slams Foes

NEW YORK The “worldwide leader in sports” can’t make the same claim on the World Wide Web. After trailing for years, Yahoo Sports has been consistently beating ESPN.com in terms of total monthly audience recently. According to new data from both Nielsen and comScore, Yahoo’s audience topped ESPN.com’s every week in March, the height of college basketball office-pool madness.

Just 573,000 users separated the sites during the week ending March 15, when the NCAA men’s basketball tournament field was announced. But then Yahoo Sports reeled in 14.4 million and 12.7 million weekly uniques during the tournament’s first two weeks (per Nielsen), versus ESPN.com’s 12.8 million and 9.8 million uniques. Last March, ESPN.com still led the category. CBS Sports, which streamed the tournament live, saw its audience peak at 11.4 million users during the week ending March 22, though it rarely approaches either site’s reach in an average month.

And while Yahoo Sports grabbed headlines during last summer’s Olympics when it drew a larger Web audience than NBC, beating ESPN during March could be considered even more impressive, since ESPN owns college hoops throughout the season. “It used to be when the monthly numbers came out we’d be holding our breath,” said Jimmy Pitaro, vp of Yahoo Sports and Entertainment. “Now, if you look at the [gap], it’s been growing.”

The traffic win follows Yahoo Sports receiving some serious validation for its budding journalistic clout by breaking a major story on alleged recruiting violations at Final Four participant University of Connecticut.

ESPN sees things differently. John Kosner, ESPN’s senior vp, general manager of digital media, said ESPN.com draws a more passionate fan base, one that visits more regularly and stays longer than Yahoo’s does. Kosner argued that because Yahoo can funnel casual sports fans from its home page and e-mail pages, its audience is less valuable. He points to ESPN’s huge edge in total minutes (216 million versus 144 million in the second week in March) as a truer indicator of engagement. “ESPN.com’s users are consistently more valuable than Yahoo’s,” said Kosner.

Kosner said his sales team rarely competes with Yahoo, a point that Pitaro disputes: “Every ad meeting I’m in, people ask, ‘How do you stand up in terms of comScore.’”

Sarah Baehr, Razorfish’s national media discipline leader, said she was somewhat surprised at Yahoo Sports’ size, given ESPN’s brand dominance. While she praised the site for its user-friendly design, she conceded ESPN’s engagement argument holds water. “For high-touch buys where you are embedded a bit more, I do place more emphasis on time spent,” said Baehr.

Source: Mediaweek.com