ESPN’s Millennial Ratings for Live Sports Jump as Much as 33% With Streaming and Out-of-Home Viewing

Network shares first seven weeks of Nielsen’s total live audience numbers

The live audience ratings cover programming from Sept. 25 to Nov. 12. Getty Images
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Three months after ESPN transitioned to Nielsen’s total live audience number—which combines streaming and out-of-home viewing with traditional linear ratings—the sports network is sharing its first seven weeks of data, which sees millennial audience increases for its live sports broadcasts by as much as 33 percent.

In the network’s Nielsen total live audience ratings, which cover programming from Sept. 25 to Nov. 12, its 18-34 demo audience increased 23 percent in total day viewing, and 28 percent in prime time telecasts, over ESPN’s traditional rating. That represented year-over-year lifts of 4 percent total day viewing and prime time viewing among millennials, the demo that the network said accounts for almost half all of ESPN’s streaming numbers.

Among all viewers, the total live audience numbers increased ESPN’s ratings by 14 percent across total day and prime. Under the new metric, ESPN’s C3 total day ratings in the 25-54 demo increased to 462,000 (18 percent).

“You really do need to look at total live audience if you want to have any understanding of how your content is performing and how you can better serve the constituencies you’re trying to attract,” said Cary Meyers, svp of fan and media intelligence, ESPN.

College football provided the most substantial total live audience ratings lift among millennials (33 percent, compared to a 16 percent increase among all viewers), while NBA (27 percent millennials; 18 percent total viewers) and Monday Night Football (26 percent millennials; 13 percent total viewers) also saw big jumps. (ESPN on ABC broadcasts are not included in the Nielsen total live audience numbers.)

ESPN was the first client to opt in to Nielsen’s out-of-home reporting service, which launched in April and incorporates TV consumption in environments like offices, airports, hotels, bars and other people’s homes. In September, ESPN announced it would be transitioning to the total live audience number, which would add out-of-home and streaming ratings (from mobile, tablet, connected TV and other devices) to the traditional linear rating.

“We expected it would make us whole and then some,” said Meyers of the new metric. “Our content is as appealing, if not more, than it’s historically been.”

The network conducted some upfront deals based on the new metric and says more than half of its transactions are now based on total live audience. ESPN’s digital and linear ad loads are identical for its live telecasts, adhering to Nielsen’s requirements for total live audience measurement.

While the new metric combines streaming and out-of-home data, “streaming is the vastly more meaningful number,” said Meyers. He noted that around half of all streaming occurs on connected TV or smart TV devices, which means that audiences are still watching that content on a TV screen even though it’s being streamed.

Meyers expects ESPN’s live streaming numbers will continue to increase—especially after Apple’s announcement yesterday that its Apple TV app now supports live sports, and that ESPN is one of the first apps to be spotlighted.

“We’re trying to be ubiquitous,” said Meyers. “I absolutely believe there’s a far higher ceiling on streaming consumption than we’ve seen so far.”

Nielsen has come under fire from networks and agencies seeking better measurement alternatives, but Meyers said ESPN is all-in with the company.

“It’s really easy to beat up on Nielsen, but we came to the recognition that while Nielsen isn’t perfect, we they have overwhelmingly the greatest potential to get close to perfect than anybody out there who purports to do media measurement,” he said. “The potential accelerator for total live audience measurement, and improved measurement in general, is going to be when everyone who’s in media recognizes that working with them is probably the best path forward. ”

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.