SBJ/April 23-29, 2012/Media

Changes jumble once-static online rankings

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The status quo in the monthly comScore ratings for the most-trafficked U.S. online sports sites is changing significantly this year, just as the ratings themselves and the display advertising sales they influence are getting more scrutiny.

For the past several years, the online ratings have had an established hierarchy: Yahoo! Sports atop the list, usually followed in some order by ESPN, FoxSports.com, Turner/Sports Illustrated Digital, Big Lead Sports, CBSSports.com and NFL.com.

But since January, USA Today Sports Media Group has bought Big Lead Sports, Sports Illustrated has reassumed business operations for its digital properties from Turner, ESPN no longer holds the traffic assignment of Active.com, and independent outlets such as SB Nation continue to post strong growth. Going back to last summer, NBCSports.com began to include the traffic from NHL.com in its number as part of their broad media sales alliance, and MLB.com began to use the more advanced comScore beaconing measurement technology employed by the other major sports sites.

The ensuing result has been more month-to-month shifts in the rankings, which one digital sports media executive likened to the AP college football rankings in terms of the bragging rights associated with them and the jockeying that frequently occurs to move up slots.
Top sports sites (by unique visitors) for the month of March
RANK SITE/GROUP OF SITES UNIQUES (000s)
1 Yahoo! Sports 49,911
2 ESPN 37,721
3 FoxSports.com on MSN 36,304
4 USA Today Sports Media Group 23,648
5 Turner Sports Digital 23,348
6 CBS Sports 20,950
7 NBC Sports 14,718
8 SB Nation 10,865
9 NFL Internet Group 10,708
10 SI sites 10,139
11 Sporting News on AOL 9,944
12 MLB 9,758
13 BleacherReport.com 8,990
14 Active.com sites 6,860
15 Big Lead Sports by FSV 6,236
Average minutes per visitor for top three sports sites
1 Yahoo! Sports 43.6
2 ESPN 88.1
3 FoxSports.com on MSN 20.5
Source: comScore
The comScore figures are still widely used as a tool for media buyers to gauge which sites reach the most users and where to make spending allocations. While reach remains an important metric, and comScore data can help open doors for media properties to boost ad sales, site operators say they are increasingly closing advertising deals based on their content and brand value.

“We’re really being asked about what we’re doing to be unique in the market and what we’re doing to satisfy advertisers,” said David Katz, founder and chief executive of ThePostGame.com, which holds a partnership with Yahoo! Sports and whose traffic is reported as part of their number in comScore rankings. “That’s a different conversation than just reach.”

Along similar lines, ESPN and others have increasingly been trumpeting their engagement and consumption data to sponsors. ESPN in March maintained its typical lead among sports sites for average time spent, with users spending an average of 88 minutes on the site during the month.

The comScore reach data also holds more direct influence on display advertising sales and rates than on video advertising, which typically carries higher fees and is now more important to many content publishers. The rankings also do not include wireless traffic, which for some outlets is approaching half of their overall digital audience. MLB.com crossed the 50 percent wireless traffic threshold during the 2011 season and is expected to consistently blow by that mark this year.

As has always been the case, there remain marked differences for many sites between the third-party numbers from outlets such as comScore and the sites’ own internal traffic data. “I think buyers are starting to get more sophisticated than just reach, and also realize the importance of video, major tentpole events, and certainly mobile,” said Rick Cordella, NBC Sports Digital vice president and general manager.

While comScore represents the closest thing in the market to a bona fide third-party standard for online rankings, there is plenty of behind-the-scenes sniping among competing media outlets over alleged moves to “game” the system. Among the accusations are rolling up non-endemic or non-sports sites into one’s overall number, and referrals to third-party sites that also get counted for one’s own traffic number.

Beyond alleged tricks, there are also several sites such as NBA.com, NHL.com and the ThePostGame.com that roll up partner site numbers, but if broken out by themselves, would likely stand among industry leaders.

“You do have to scale at the end of the day for your site to really work for advertisers,” said Jim Bankoff, chairman and chief executive of Vox Media, parent of SB Nation. “But it does ultimately come down to your own value proposition and your own creative execution.”

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