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The biggest knock on the FedEx Cup playoffs has been that Bill Haas made a putt for $11.4 million and seemingly had no clue how much was at stake.
Had Haas fully understood the consequences of that putt on the 18th hole, would the TV audience on NBC have been any bigger? Probably not, say those in the golf industry.
As it was, the final round of the Tour Championship generated a 1.4 average rating, a 40 percent increase over 2010, but still well off the pace set in 2009 when Tiger Woods dueled Phil Mickelson in a made-for-TV finish that got a 3.0 rating.
Ratings for other playoff events, the Deutsche Bank Championship and BMW Championship, slipped, while The Barclays was affected by Hurricane Irene in late August. Overall, it made for an up-and-down ratings performance for the playoffs.
“Well, it’s fall, it’s college and pro football season, and honestly there’s no Tiger and really there was no Phil [Mickelson] down the stretch,” said Peter Jacobsen, who runs his own sports marketing agency and also called the action for NBC. “But I really believe the tour got it right when you think about all of the possibilities that were there in the final round.”
Prior to the playoffs, the tour’s regular season rebounded from a down year in 2010 with a 7 percent jump this year. The tour took its ratings increase as a sign that the younger players were resonating with the viewers, but they were unable to move the needle significantly in the playoffs.
As the Tour Championship came down the stretch, a half-dozen golfers, including Luke Donald, Webb Simpson, K.J. Choi, Aaron Baddeley, Hunter Mahan and Haas, were just a putt or two away from winning the $10 million FedEx Cup prize. None of them, however, were named Tiger. Instead, most of the names belonged to the up-and-comers that the PGA Tour has promoted in its mostly Tiger-less season.
The PGA Tour remains encouraged by its TV performance for the year, noting the 7 percent increase in average ratings, as well as an 11 percent increase in the amount of time viewers tuned in to the broadcast. Ty Votaw, the tour’s executive vice president for communications and international affairs, said the playoffs have enhanced tour events and given golf a buzz it lacked in September before the FedEx Cup came along in 2007.
In the five years of the playoffs, the tour said it’s up 48 percent in reach, 30 percent in average minutes viewed and 29 percent in ratings for third and fourth rounds, compared with events during comparable weeks from 2004 to 2006. Nielsen defines reach as the number of different households exposed at least once to a program.
“You have to look at the new normal versus the old normal,” Votaw said. “When you look at the amount of time viewers spend watching golf and the cumulative audience this time of year, those numbers are all well up compared to what they used to be. Granted, it’s a period of time that’s very competitive and we understand that there’s a lot of interest in college and pro football, but it’s clearly an overall net add to where we were before the playoffs.”
The most alarming numbers came from the BMW Championship, which generated a 0.7 rating for the third round and a 0.9 for the final round. That was down from a 1.1 and 1.3, respectively, in 2010.
Not surprisingly, ratings peaked at 3.0 or better during the five years of the playoffs when Woods was at his best. He won the playoffs in 2007 and 2009, and the ratings reflected his popularity. The final round of the Tour Championship those years hit a 3.0 average rating. The final round of the Deutsche Bank in 2007 drew a 3.4, the highest average rating for any single day of the playoffs.
David Grant, principal at Team Epic, the agency that represents FedEx, said the playoffs have done their job.
“People are talking about golf in September,” Grant said. “That was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the FedEx Cup, and it’s working.”
FedEx Cup Average TV Ratings
Through The Years
THIRD ROUND FINAL ROUND 2007 1.5 2.1 2008 0.9 1.7 2009 1.9 3.2 2010 1.7 2.1 2011* 0.7 1.1 Deutsche Bank Championship
THIRD ROUND FINAL ROUND 2007 2.6 3.4 2008 1.4 1.5 2009 1.7 2.2 2010 1.5 1.9 2011 1.4 1.8 BMW Championship
THIRD ROUND FINAL ROUND 2007 2.4 3.1 2008 0.8 1.2 2009 2.1 2.3 2010 1.1 1.3 2011 0.7 0.9 Tour Championship
THIRD ROUND FINAL ROUND 2007 2.6 3.0 2008 1.1 1.6 2009 2.1 3.0 2010 0.9 1.0 2011 1.0 1.4
FedEx Cup champions
2007 Tiger Woods 2008 Vijay Singh 2009 Tiger Woods 2010 Jim Furyk 2011 Bill Haas
* The third round served as the tournament’s final round this year due to weather; Sunday’s telecast was a replay of the previous year’s tournament.
Sources: SportsBusiness Daily, The Nielsen Co.
A second-half surge in TV viewership propelled the Philadelphia Phillies to the top spot among MLB’s local RSN ratings this season.
The team ended the season with a 9.1 rating on Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia, edging out the second place St. Louis Cardinals (9.0) on FS Midwest. That difference shrank considerably during the season’s final week, as the Cardinals set RSN ratings records while outlasting the Atlanta Braves for a wild card slot on the season’s final day. The Phillies, meanwhile, were coasting into the playoffs.
The Astros, with MLB’s worst record, saw ratings drop 40 percent, second worst overall.
Still, the Phillies saw their ratings rise by 11 percent, an amazing ninth consecutive season of ratings growth. During that period, Phillies ratings have grown a stunning 176 percent. The average 276,000 homes that watched each Phillies game was second only to the New York Yankees this season.
“It’s been building for a couple of years,” said Brian Monihan, CSN Philadelphia senior vice president and general manager. “When the Phillies signed Cliff Lee in the offseason, it really pushed things to a new level.”
MLB teams’ RSN ratings*
AVG. RATING Top 5 Team RSN 2011 rating (Change^) Philadelphia CSN 9.12 (+10.5%) St. Louis FS Midwest 9.00 (-4.5%) Milwaukee FS Wisconsin 7.95 (+59.0%) Boston NESN 7.80 (+31.1%) Cincinnati FS Ohio 7.44 (-0.5%) Bottom 5 Houston FS Houston 1.51 (-40.3%) Oakland CSN California
1.24 (+5.1%) Washington MASN/MASN2 1.22 (-4.7%) Los Angeles Angels FS West 1.14 (-5.8%) Los Angeles Dodgers FS Prime Ticket 1.14 (-30.1%) RATING CHANGE Top 5 Team RSN Change^ (2011 rating) Cleveland SportsTime Ohio +108.9% (6.31) Milwaukee FS Wisconsin +59.0% (7.95) Pittsburgh Root Sports Pittsburgh +49.1% (4.89) Kansas City FS Kansas City +31.4% (3.35) Boston NESN +31.1% (7.80) Bottom 5 Minnesota FS North -28.3% (6.24) Los Angeles Dodgers FS Prime Ticket -30.1% (1.14) Tampa Bay FS Florida/Sun Sports -37.5% (3.67) Houston FS Houston -40.3% (1.51) San Diego Cox/SD 4 -41.4% (3.15) AVG. AUDIENCE SIZE Top 5 Team RSN 2011 No. of households (Change^) New York Yankees YES 319,000 (-5.3%) Philadelphia CSN 276,000 (+16.0%) Boston NESN 192,000 (+34.3%) New York Mets SportsNet NY 163,000 (-19.3%) San Francisco CSN Bay Area 127,000 (+23.3%) Bottom 6 Houston FS Houston 33,000 (-38.9%) Kansas City FS Kansas City 33,000 (+37.5%) Florida FS Florida 32,000 (-25.6%) Baltimore MASN/MASN2 31,000 (-6.1%) Oakland CSN California 31,000 (+3.3%) Washington MASN/MASN2 29,000 (-3.3%) AUDIENCE CHANGE Top 5 Team RSN Change^ (2011 No. of HOUSEHOLDs) Cleveland SportsTime Ohio +50,000 (96,000) Boston NESN +49,000 (192,000) Philadelphia CSN +38,000 (276,000) Milwaukee FS Wisconsin +27,000 (72,000) San Francisco CSN Bay Area +24,000 (127,000) Bottom 6 Atlanta SportSouth -24,000 (74,000) San Diego Cox/SD 4 -24,000 (34,000) Los Angeles Dodgers FS Prime Ticket -27,000 (65,000) New York Mets SportsNet NY -39,000 (163,000) Tampa Bay FS Florida/Sun Sports -40,000 (66,000) Minnesota FS North -43,000 (109,000)
* Season-end 2011 figures for Philadelphia and St. Louis; through Sept. 22 for all other clubs.
^ Compared to 2010
Notes: Comparable data was not available for the Toronto Blue Jays. Teams with identical marks are listed alphabetically.
Compiled by John Ourand and David Broughton
Another good story locally in 2011 occurred in Cleveland, where the Indians more than doubled their ratings from last year. With a week left in the regular season, Indians games on SportsTime Ohio were up 109 percent from last year.
But overall, local RSN ratings took a hit this year, with 17 of 29 teams (59 percent) showing a lower rating this year compared with last year. Local TV numbers for the Toronto Blue Jays are not available.
The bottom end of MLB’s local ratings were dominated by two underperforming markets. The once-proud Los Angeles market is home to the two lowest local ratings, for the Dodgers and Angels, and the Tampa market continued to be a thorn in MLB’s side, as the Rays showed a 37 percent decrease in local ratings with a week left in the regular season — despite a frantic September that saw the team claim a wild card spot on the season’s final day.
The biggest drop-off came in San Diego, where Padres games were down 41 percent in their last season on Cox. Not surprisingly, the Astros, who had the league’s worst record, saw a ratings drop of 40 percent for the team’s second-to-last season on FS Houston.
Nationally, Fox reported a 1.8 final rating for its package of Saturday games, flat with the past three years. ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” registered a slight increase, posting a 1.5 U.S. household rating (excluding ESPN2 games) compared with last year’s 1.4 rating. Turner’s ratings were flat, averaging a 0.4 U.S. household rating. TBS’s 26 Sunday afternoon telecasts are blacked out in the home market.
Regional sports networks will take a significant financial hit if the NBA lockout extends beyond 20 games, according to several media sources.
That’s because of a clause in most of the regional networks’ affiliate contracts that’s known as a “product guarantee provision,” which mandates that RSNs repay a portion of their affiliate fees if they fail to deliver a specific number of NBA games.
NBAE / GETTY IMAGES
The Spurs had the highest cable rating among NBA teams last season.
Outside of ESPN, RSNs typically are the highest-priced channels, commanding anywhere between $2 and $4 per subscriber per month, according to figures from SNL Financial. Any rebate would be a negotiated percentage of the monthly affiliate fee that could be anywhere from 10 to 50 percent.
On the flip side, RSNs will be made-good and not have to pay teams for games that aren’t played.
The industry has no standard product guarantee provision language. The clauses are individually negotiated and generally dependent on how many sports an RSN carries. For example, an RSN like Cox New Orleans would be affected more than most because its main programming comes from one NBA team: the Hornets. But an RSN like Comcast SportsNet Chicago is less likely to be affected since it carries the Cubs, White Sox and Blackhawks in addition to the NBA’s Bulls.
The clauses typically won’t kick in if an RSN misses one or two games. They will kick in if an RSN loses 10 percent of the minimum number of games it guaranteed, sources said.
“Most regional contracts have a 10 percent buffer,” said one executive who has worked on these deals. “So if an RSN commits to 70 games, they would only be required to rebate money if they provide 63 games.”
Some RSNs have gotten around this clause by guaranteeing a certain number of games, without specifying which sport. But distributors have recently demanded that the clauses become much more specific.
“Sports rights have become so expensive that operators are requiring that RSNs make specific guarantees for each team,” another executive said.
The NBA is coming off a hugely successful season in terms of local TV ratings, when about half of the NBA’s 30 teams saw double-digit increases in cable ratings.
“Live programming is what the RSNs are all about, so they are going to take a hit in fees and also in advertising revenues,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president and director of research for Horizon Media. “You have 82 games to fill along with the studio and ancillary shows.”
The San Antonio Spurs finished the season with the highest cable rating, a 10.19 local rating for its games on FS Southwest, up 52 percent from the previous season. The high-profile Miami Heat, which saw its local ratings on Sun Sports nearly double to a 4.94 average, was the third-best in the league, with the Heat posting a 99 percent increase in its average rating from last season.
For the first time in almost two years, not one cable network eclipsed the 100 million-home threshold.
By comparison, in October 2010, 10 cable channels reached more than 100 million homes; the 39 biggest had seen a year-over-year increase. For example, ESPN was in 100.187 million homes in May of this year. Today, Nielsen puts ESPN in 98.648 million homes. That’s a loss of 1.539 million subscribers in just five months. With distributors paying ESPN $4.69 a subscriber a month, that downturn represents a potential subscriber fee loss of $7.2 million a month for ESPN alone.
Are we finally seeing real evidence of cord cutting?
I’ve long thought that cord cutting — the trend where people give up their cable and satellite subscriptions and rely on over-the-air television, DVDs and Internet video — is a real threat.
A cursory look at the pay-TV industry suggests that cord cutting could be happening, especially considering that the country’s biggest distributors are losing subscribers. Comcast and Time Warner Cable, for example, lost a combined 1.2 million video subscribers in the past year, according to a Reuters report.
But these numbers are not as dire as they initially appear, according to several industry executives.
They insist that there’s no evidence that cord cutting is happening to a significant degree. They say any loss in subscribers is due more to the country’s economy and households’ need to cut costs rather than a real desire for cord cutting.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said he doesn’t consider cord cutting a threat. He pointed to the down economy as the main reason why subscriber numbers are dropping, with consumers looking to cut back on their monthly fee.
“If four years ago someone would ask ‘what would happen to TV providers if the economy went into a great recession and unemployment doubled to 9.2 percent,’ the answer would have probably been ‘people would cut in huge numbers to save the money,’” he stated via email.
ESPN shares a similar view. The network has been working with Nielsen since August 2010 to monitor cord cutting. It has found just a small percentage of subscribers cuts the cord every month. For example, from June to September, just 0.24 percent of the Nielsen sample they were monitoring cut the cord. That’s not even a quarter of 1 percent.
“We call this statistical noise,” said Artie Bulgrin, ESPN’s senior vice president of research and analytics. “It is tiny.”
This is why sports TV is so valuable these days. Distributors love to complain about the high cost of sports networks, which consistently are the most expensive in their packages.
But distributors depend on those sports networks to keep cord cutting from taking hold as a real trend.
In June 2010, I wrote about Richard Taylor, an Englishman living in Boston with his American wife and no children. Taylor had cut the cord and was happy. He was saving about $70 a month by using over-the-air TV, Netflix and Apple TV.
But when I checked back in with him last week, he said he restarted his Comcast subscription. The reason? He wanted to watch ESPN and NFL Network for the next three months.
“It’s just for football,” Taylor said. “Once the NFL season is over, we’ll cancel again.”
The Nielsen sample looking at cord cutters reached a similar conclusion. It showed that none — literally 0.00 percent — of the sample’s heavy or medium sports viewers cut the cord. The heaviest cord cutters are light sports viewers.
If cord cutting isn’t happening yet, why is the cable network universe shrinking?
Nielsen recalibrated the numbers based on information from the 2010 census, Bulgrin said. In fact, the number of overall TV homes in the U.S. dropped around 1 percent to 114.7 million. The total universe household had been at 115.9 million.
“This happened after the 1990 census and the 2000 census, too,” he said.
The stat Bulgrin’s keeping an eye on is the percentage of U.S. households that take cable. That number — 91 percent — has not changed much over the past several years.
John Ourand can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.