SBJ/20100726/Media

Low British Open ratings stir little debate on cable strategy

You might think that when league executives saw this year’s British Open ratings, they would think twice about selling their biggest events to cable channels.

The TV numbers were downright ugly. In its first year carrying all four rounds of the British Open, ESPN logged the lowest rating for a final round in the event’s history, and its Saturday coverage brought the lowest rating in 22 years.

As the anemic TV numbers started to roll in, I was certain that the most intrigue around a sleepy British Open — at least for American audiences — would come several days after Louis Oosthuizen lifted the claret jug.

But I was wrong. There was no intrigue. I called several league executives. I talked with ESPN and other media executives. There was no real outcry about the ratings. And there was a clear sign that the trend of big sports events migrating to cable is not slowing down.

BCS Director Bill Hancock is a perfect example. Hancock oversaw a deal to sell ESPN the rights to BCS games through January 2014 for $495 million. This January will mark the first time the BCS will not be available on a broadcast channel — but exclusively on ESPN, seen in 15 million fewer homes than broadcast networks.

“There will be some drop in viewership. We expect that,” he said. “But it won’t be significant because sports fans will still be there.”

The lowest rating for a final round in the event’s
history didn’t shake many in the industry.

But what about the British Open ratings?

“One event with no American in the hunt is not a reliable sample. We can’t take anything from it,” Hancock said. “We’re not alarmed, by any means.”

Hancock’s view was echoed by others. The majority believe that this year’s Open certainly would have flirted with record-low numbers even if ABC had carried it. The tournament was a dud for American audiences. It featured a virtual unknown in Oosthuizen running away with the victory. It added up to an anemic final day rating of 2.1, which is off by a whopping 44 percent from last year, when U.S. golfing legend Tom Watson was in the mix.

ESPN, not surprisingly, says the numbers aren’t as bad they appear. Sunday was a disaster, which the ratings numbers show. But ESPN executives say the TV numbers tell a much better story for the days when the tournament still was in doubt.

“Where there was competition, there was no degradation in audience,” said Artie Bulgrin, ESPN’s senior vice president of research and sales development. “In fact, we saw an increase in the younger audience. We’ve achieved almost certain parity between multichannel and broadcast.”

I expected ESPN’s response. Every time I’ve written about ratings declines, networks always try to get me to focus on demos rather than overall numbers. What makes the British Open numbers so interesting, though, is that they show how the TV viewing audience changes when properties move from broadcast to cable.

The makeup of ESPN’s British Open viewers shows that cable attracts a younger demographic that all sports leagues want to reach. Even in the face of a 30 percent drop in overall household ratings, the British Open saw its 18- to 34-year-old demographic increase by 5 percent.

Rather than focus on Sunday numbers, ESPN points to Saturday, when the tournament still was competitive.

ABC posted a slightly better rating in 2009 (2.4 vs. 2.3). But ESPN logged the British Open’s highest male 18- to 49-year-old ratings (up 10 percent) since 2006, and highest persons 18- to 34-year-old rating (up 12 percent) since 2005.

“This is something that we’ve seen in other sports, as well, like the NBA conference finals, NASCAR and the NFL Pro Bowl,” Bulgrin said.

ESPN also is considering its online efforts around the British Open a success. ESPN’s broadband service, ESPN3, logged more than 250,000 unique viewers, who spent an average of more than two hours online (131 minutes).

Of course, the main reason sports properties are still interested in cable comes down to money. Thanks to their dual revenue stream of cable operator fees and advertising, cable channels can afford to pay more for rights.

Cable channels can’t provide the same total audience as broadcasters. But the British Open ratings set off no cause for concern among rights holders looking to migrate to cable.

The money and the younger demos will make ESPN and Turner, in particular, attractive options for sports’ big events.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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