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Summary:

If you look at the NBA Finals viewership by comparing TV and digital, the temptation might be a shrug. But in the context of a live event airing during prime time, it’s not shabby — and it shows why ESPN is looking to video and mobile for growth.

NBA Finals 2012 on WatchESPN

If you look at the NBA Finals viewing stats by comparing TV and digital, the temptation might be a shrug: the broadcasts on ABC averaged 16,855,000 viewers over five games compared with 330,000 unique viewers via WatchESPN and broadband channel ESPN3.

But in the context of a live event airing during prime time, it’s not shabby. And with broadcast records being set during the Miami Heat-Oklahoma City Thunder finals, fueled by the LeBron James storyline and last year’s Heat stroke, the additional online accessibility didn’t hurt the NBA or ABC/ESPN. (Starting Monday, we’ll see what it does for ESPN’s wall-to-wall coverage of Wimbledon.)

ESPN released some internal Adobe and Omniture data about how digital worked across its platforms during the five games and on game days. A few highlights:

WatchESPN/ESPN3/Xbox: The finals aired on ad-supported ABC but also were streamed live by ESPN through its broadband network ESPN3, the WatchESPN app and Xbox Live Gold. ESPN estimates an average 122,251 viewers watched per minute, while the five games averaged 330,000 unique viewers and 17 million minutes. Unlike college basketball’s March Madness, where online viewership starts high on weekdays and shifts down as fans can watch from home, the prime-time NBA finals started with nearly 299,000 unique viewers for Game 1 and escalated. The highest number released by ESPN was 347,000 for Game 4. Finals viewing also increased substantially over the earlier play-off games; according to ESPN, Game 1 uniques and minutes streamed were up 40 percent and 49 percent respectively over the 2012 post-season average until then.

ESPN PR wouldn’t provide more detail, including which kinds of devices were used the most

ESPN3 and WatchESPN, which includes access to the broadband network plus linear streaming of ESPN and ESPN2, are available only to those subscribers whose pay TV providers and/or ISPs have authentication deals with ESPN. (For instance, I get ESPN3 as a Charter high-speed-data subscriber so can watch on PCs but do not have access to WatchESPN via my video providers Charter or DirecTV so can’t watch on mobile devices.) Yes, it’s Byzantine. The decision to include ESPN3 in the branding for WatchESPN — sending users to WatchESPN.com — only makes it more confusing.

Any comparisons to last year’s live viewing would be meaningless, skewed by Comcast, the largest U.S. cable provider, adding WatchESPN in the interim. Xfinity doubled the potential WatchESPN viewership to 40 million households when it added the service last month.

Mobile: Excluding live video, ESPN is gauging mobile usage (at least externally) by how people used mobile browsers and the ESPN ScoreCenter app. The network says the NBA mobile browser page averaged 1.5 million daily uniques on game days, up 24 percent over 2011. The NBA “card” in ScoreCenter averaged 984,000 daily users, nearly tripling from 336,000 last year.

The web: This is where you can really see the growth opportunities for ESPN are in mobile and video. Again excluding live video, ESPN.com’s NBA section averaged more than 1.7 million daily uniques, up 9 percent over last year. It’s an increase and nothing to sneer at but single-digit upticks almost seem flat these days. The average amount of overall game-day time spent in that section, 15 million total minutes, went up 12 percent.

At least ESPN provides some data

ESPN doesn’t want to release a more detailed account but they get credit for offering some specifics. Too often, the leagues or associations and the networks try to fake us out by offering only percentages of growth with no foundation. Take the USGA, which really, really wanted to brag about last weekend’s U.S. Open Championship tech gains but only offered percentages like “fan viewership of live streaming video increased 210 percent over 2011″ and “the USGA recorded a 44 percent increase in iPhone app downloads.”

When I asked USGA PR for more detail, I included an example from ESPN. I’m still waiting for a reply — but I’m not holding my breath.

  1. Tier 1 content meant for the TV stays on the TV.

    It’s the 99% of content not on TV where the entrepreneurial opportunities lie.

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  2. George Stables Monday, June 25, 2012

    I bet the MLG tournament at Annaheim beat that figure….

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