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Volume 20 No. 42
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Sports gets up early on Saturday

Networks stake their claim among cartoons

Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.

Kids’ programming has dominated Saturday morning TV for decades.

But sports networks are finding out that they can carve out audiences of their own on Saturday mornings with demographics that are among the strongest they see all week.

Make no mistake: Saturday morning TV still is children’s paradise, as Disney Channel and Nickelodeon have brought in the second biggest TV audiences this fall. ESPN, though, is nipping at their heels with its popular “College GameDay,” and NBC Sports Network is bringing in some of its strongest audiences of the week with its English Premier League soccer programming.

ESPN’s Nov. 30 “College GameDay” from Auburn, Ala., drew more than 2 million viewers.
Take Nov. 30, for example. ESPN’s “College GameDay” logged 2.052 million viewers — its second biggest audience of the season with a three-hour telecast produced from Auburn, Ala., in advance of the Iron Bowl. At the same time, NBC Sports Network averaged 450,000 viewers for its Cardiff-Arsenal game, tied with the league’s opening weekend for the channel’s largest EPL audience in the 10 a.m.-to-noon window.


SBJ Podcast:
John Ourand & Austin Karp on some of the reasons behind the growing audiences for sports programming on Saturday mornings.

Those numbers were well below kids’ programming like “SpongeBob SquarePants,” which averaged more than 3 million viewers on Nickelodeon, and “Game Plan,” which averaged just under 3 million viewers for Disney Channel during a previous Saturday time period in November. So while Saturday mornings are not quite a new prime time for sports networks, the overall audiences are surprisingly big enough for sports networks to view them as an important time to program. It’s an area where networks believe they can grow.

“Having the EPL in this window is great,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBCSN. “You’re not competing against SEC football, you’re not competing against NASCAR, you’re not competing against the PGA Tour, you’re not competing against the NFL, you’re not competing against the really established, high-end brands at that time as you would be at 3 p.m.”

This is the first year that NBCSN has held EPL rights. Miller pointed to the EPL audience as a significant upgrade for the network over last year, when NBCSN generally sold Saturday morning time to outdoors producers for a variety of field sports. “EPL is a far different audience and a far different product,” he said. “Field sports has an audience that actually did OK in those time periods. EPL is obviously performing considerably better.”

That performance has allowed NBCSN to sell national advertising around the early morning windows, with weekend morning viewer numbers easily supporting the sales effort.

ESPN has reached the same conclusions around its “College GameDay” franchise. The show generally lands as one of ESPN’s top 20 shows for the week and typically is ESPN’s most watched non-NFL studio show.

“We’ve always seen Saturday morning as an important time period,” said John Papa, ESPN’s vice president of programming, content strategy and acquisitions. “The viewership is there.”

Viewership around “College GameDay” is down 10 percent so far this season. Through Nov. 30, it has averaged 1.831 million viewers, down from last year’s average of 2.033 million viewers.

ESPN executives attribute the drop to the fact that they lengthened the show from two to three hours on ESPN this season.

Last year, the 9-10 a.m. hour for “College GameDay” was on ESPNU. The ESPNU viewership was not included in last year’s average. If it were, viewership for three hours of “College GameDay” would be up around 8 percent, ESPN executives said.

“Whenever you expand something, the chances are that the overall rating and overall viewership might be down. We knew that going in,” Papa said.

It’s not just about audience size for these networks. Both ESPN and NBC executives said the demographics of the people tuning in to Saturday morning sports are overwhelmingly young and male. The average age of the EPL audience is 39, which is trending far younger than the average age of the overall NBC Sports Network audience, which is 46, Miller said.

“EPL viewers are considerably younger than the average viewer watching sports on television,” Miller said. “This skews a lot younger than anything we have. Young people will find it.”

Papa says “GameDay’s” demographics are similar.

“‘GameDay,’ like all of our studio programming, is much younger than college football games themselves,” he said. “Games are an older demo. It always has been. It’s a trend we’ve seen in other sports. Studio typically has a younger demo than live events.”

With ESPN and NBCSN finding Saturday morning success with sports programming, their executives are expecting to see more sports networks devote their resources to build up weekend morning programming blocks.

“Guys aren’t out playing golf right now. People are at home watching,” Miller said. “We think it’s the same thing with some of the other product that’s out there. If you put on good content, people will find it.”