ESPNU Winning War With Versus

Versus on Saturday delivered its largest NCAA football audience, but in a head-to-head battle with ESPN’s college network, the Comcast property is coming up a bit short.

The top-ranked Oregon Ducks squeezed out a 15-13 win over the Golden Bears of Cal, in a Pac-10 defensive battle that drew 1.91 million viewers to Versus Saturday night (7:30 p.m.-11 p.m.). In holding on to its No. 1 ranking, Oregon helped surpass Versus’ previous high-water mark for a college football game: 1.6 million viewers, set by the Ducks’ battle with Oregon State on Nov. 29, 2008.

ESPNU’s UTEP-Arkansas game at 7 p.m. was no match for what Versus had on its menu, as the spinoff net delivered just 366,000 viewers. That said, ESPNU this season has an edge over Versus in head-to-head college football deliveries, serving up an average 496,200 total viewers over the course of 11 telecasts, an 8 percent lead over Versus’ 461,500.

Two games in particular have given ESPNU the upper hand. On Oct. 2, the network drew a season-high 1.44 million viewers with its coverage of the Indiana-Michigan game; two weeks later, it would break the million-fan mark for the second time with its Florida-Mississippi State telecast (1.11 million).

While the Oregon game went a long way toward making the Versus-ESPNU match-up competitive––take Saturday’s games off the books and Bristol would enjoy a 41 percent advantage since the season began, with an average draw of 502,000 viewers to Versus’ 355,000––ESPNU also benefits from the promotional heft afforded by its big brothers ESPN and ESPN2. For example, when ESPN invited viewers to look in on the UTEP-Arkansas game during its noon Iowa-Northwestern broadcast, the promo was seen by some 2.48 million viewers. A pitch for ESPNU rendered during the 3:15 p.m. College Football Scoreboard would have been received by as many as 2.25 million fans.

Of course, the ESPNU and Versus evening games may be the choice of last resort or strictly regional affairs, given the sort of numbers Bristol’s flagship net draws on Saturday evening. ESPN’s Nov. 13 SEC showcase (South Carolina-Florida) scared up a whopping 4.35 million viewers, per Nielsen live-plus-same-day ratings data, eclipsing Versus’ delivery by 128 percent while dwarfing its sibling channel’s effort by nearly 4 million viewers.

On the distribution front, Versus and ESPNU are evenly matched. The Comcast net now reaches more than 75 million households, giving it a slight edge over ESPNU’s 73 million homes. Both nets feature unique football products, inasmuch as Versus carries Mountain West and Pac-10 games while ESPNU offers a mixed bag of Big East, SEC, Big Ten and ACC contests.

On the whole, Versus may put up the biggest numbers when it matters the most. Per SNL Kagan estimates, Versus in 2009 generated $75.9 million in net ad sales revenue, nearly five times what ESPNU took in ($16.3 million) during the same period. Versus also boasts a significantly higher carriage fee, charging operators 28 cents per sub per month as opposed to ESPNU’s going rate of 17 cents.