ESPN Fields Major Sports Research Initiative

The 2010 FIFA World Cup will be a proving ground of sorts for ESPN, which will launch an ambitious research effort in conjunction with the month-long international soccer tournament.

The network has unveiled ESPN XP, a multi-partner initiative designed to study consumer behavior as it relates to consumption of major sporting events across various media platforms. Joining ESPN in the effort are the Nielsen Co., Knowledge Networks, the Media Behavior Institute, the Keller Fay Group and the Wharton School’s Interactive Media Initiative.

While reminiscent of NBC Universal’s TAMi (Total Audience Measurement index) project, ESPN XP looks to examine consumer behavior across all media, including TV, Internet, mobile, radio and print. (Launched concurrently with NBCU’s coverage of the 2008 Summer Olympics, TAMi layered online video impressions atop Nielsen-measured linear TV ratings, while sprinkling mobile and video-on-demand usage data atop the two larger subsets.)

ESPN svp, research and analytics Artie Bulgrin said XP is the most ambitious initiative of its kind, as it will attempt to measure all media platforms around a single event. “This represents a major step forward in our commitment to further advance the knowledge about multimedia use and the impact it has on our clients’ media campaigns,” Bulgrin said. “With ESPN XP, we’re going to increase the intensity of our work. There’s going to be a much higher level of financial and intellectual investment on our part.”

The various collaborations between ESPN and its third-party research partners will line up a number of industry firsts. For instance, ESPN has signed on as the first commercial client for Nielsen’s Life360, a mobile platform that delivers consumer insights via 250 electronic diaries.

“Our hope is that insights derived from measuring major media events, particularly in live sports and across all media, will help advertisers and programmers make smarter decisions to grow their businesses in the years ahead,” said Howard Shimmel, Nielsen svp, client insights.

As with any team effort, each researcher will play a unique position. Nielsen will handle all linear television ratings, while the company’s Nielsen Online unit will pitch in to help assess cross-platform behavior as it pertains to TV and Internet usage, via data derived from a panel of more than 10,000 consumers. Midfielder Keller Fay will measure patterns in word-of-mouth surrounding the sponsor brands, with an eye toward discerning tonal and volume shifts as the tournament progresses.

“There is a powerful link between advertising and word-of-mouth, and that advertising sparks millions of consumer conversations. We also know that soccer fans in the U.S. index very high as word of mouth influencers,” said Keller Fay Group CEO Ed Keller. “We look forward to working with the ESPN XP team to expand our learning and help advertisers to more fully understand how they can drive brand advocacy via sports sponsorship.”  


Hugging the touch line, Knowledge Networks will measure weekly and total exposure to World Cup action across all platforms, including away-from-home venues. The latter represents a significant opportunity for advertisers, as untold hundreds of thousands of fans who watch the games in bars and restaurants go uncounted. (Arbitron’s ARB-TV service tracks away-from-home viewership for a small stable of clients, including Turner Broadcasting System and CBS.)

“We were the only programmer to subscribe to Nielsen’s [now defunct] out-of-home service,” Bulgrin said, acknowledging the need for greater insight into viewership that takes place beyond the family room. “We’ll be picking up their [Life360] diaries … and they will help provide a picture of where people are throughout the day as they consume the World Cup.”

Also roaming the pitch is the Media Behavior Institute, which will apply its USA TouchPoints service to ESPN’s World Cup coverage. The company also has developed an application that enables an iPhone to serve as a media diary.

Bulgrin said the ESPN XP effort kicks in as the network continues to expand its cross-platform deliveries. “Half of all ESPN Media users are using TV and some other platform of ours,” Bulgrin said. “That’s more than double the rate that we measured about five years ago, and that half represents 70 to 75 percent of all time spent with ESPN.”

Once ESPN has had a chance to parse the various data streams, the XP initiative will be revisited in the fall, in time to provide a clearer picture of the network’s Monday Night Football and NCAA football properties. Bulgrin hopes a fully developed system of measuring cross-platform usage will be in place by 2012.

“The goal is to drive a scalable metric,” said Bulgrin, adding that it will be some time before ESPN’s sales team will make any guarantees against the research. “It’s not a metric. At some point we hope to have some more serious discussions with our advertisers when we can say, ‘This is viable, you can use this.’”

ESPN’s World Cup coverage kicks off Friday, June 11, with a Group A match between host nation South Africa and Mexico (9:30 a.m.). The title match will air Sunday, July 11, on ABC.