SBJ/November 17 - 23, 2003/Media

Sponsors, nets unfazed by loss of 18-to-34 males

Sports programming has not been immune from the much-publicized drop in ratings among men 18 to 34, but the sense of alarm coming from network entertainment divisions has not quite made its way to the sports world.

While there is disagreement on what's behind the trend — networks say there's something wrong with Nielsen Media Research's sample, while Nielsen and some ad agencies say it's just a case of young men simply not being inspired by current programming — a quick look at ratings shows that this key demographic group is also trending behind the overall population in sports viewing.

NFL ratings this year among men 18 to 34 are down 13 percent on average to a 7.1 across the broadcast networks and ESPN, according to the Initiative buying agency. Household ratings for the NFL, meanwhile, are flat.

Even sports programming that's gotten an overall lift in household numbers has seen ratings for young men not score the same gains.

ESPN, for example, got a 20 percent lift in household ratings during September and October, compared with the same period last year. It felt that jump on both a total-day basis and in prime time. Ratings for men 18 to 34 were also up, but only 8 percent for total day and 10 percent for prime time.

Ratings for college football and NASCAR also have dipped for men 18 to 34.

The only sports programming to clearly buck the trend was the MLB playoffs and the NBA. The baseball postseason on Fox bounced up 36 percent for those elusive young men, compared with a 29 percent lift in households.

The NBA also has held its own during the early going, with ratings on ESPN and TNT up 37 percent overall and 38 percent among the group in question.

While the major networks are putting strong pressure on Nielsen to explain the numbers and examine its sample, the network sports divisions, ESPN and advertisers all seem unfazed.

"One thing we know is that sports viewing among this group is fluky to begin with," said Stacey Lynn Koerner, executive vice president and director of global research for Initiative. She noted that NFL ratings for men 18 to 34 were up 17 percent last year.

The fickle nature of this group is something the sports television world has grown to expect. As Fox Sports Chairman David Hill once said after a huge drop in sports viewing in the six months that followed Sept. 11, "They're like a school of fish. They come and go." He quickly proved prophetic, as ratings for that cohort rebounded nicely over the next year.

Glenn Enochs, vice president of audience research at ESPN, said the network is doing well with most key demographics, especially older men. The ratings for men 18 to 34 may not have grown as much, but they're still high for the network, so there are no complaints, he said.

"Part of the problem with debate over men 18 to 34 is it's so restricted in time," Enochs said. "Broadcast networks found their numbers were down [during the new television season] and started to cry. But when we looked at 18 to 34 men for the first nine months of the year, [viewing] was down but only in prime time. They're viewing more in other day parts."

Overall, according to ESPN research, sports ratings across all networks are flat for 2003 among men 18 to 34, and up 1 percent for the last 12 months.

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