Amid all the industry debate around declining TV ratings for many major sports properties, particularly the NFL, another media measurement issue lurks quietly in the background: a marked retreat in the overall audience and consumption for digital sports media.
Monthly reports from measurement agency comScore tracking online and mobile traffic — representing the closest thing the business has had to a universal scoreboard — have shown a consistent trend of smaller overall audiences and dramatically lower consumption for sports properties this calendar year (see chart).
After more than a decade of largely uninterrupted audience growth in the category as mobile apps and websites have become established norms for sports fans and fundamental business segments for media properties, some industry executives now wonder if that period of marked elevation is ending.
“There has been an overall macro-level flattening of the category, as it’s been historically defined, and there is probably only so much room for growth in what is now a mature segment,” said David Coletti, ESPN vice president of media intelligence. “We’re in a transition period.”
Still the numbers from comScore may have less to do with consumption patterns and more to do with changes in how the metrics are measured, and what’s still not fully reflected in the data such as most social media traffic.
After beginning to include mobile traffic in the monthly traffic reports in 2013 and periodically tweaking its methodologies since then, comScore early this year again altered its measurement process, particularly with mobile traffic that now forms the majority of traffic for most sports outlets.
“Because of these enhancements, there was a break in the total internet duration trend, impacting categories and individual media entities,” said Adam Lella, comScore senior analyst of marketing insights. “In other words, the year-over-year declines in user engagement shouldn’t be viewed as organic.”
But even with the latest changes, comScore still primarily measures owned-and-operated digital media properties that each publisher sells advertising against. And those publisher rankings don’t include significant amounts of traffic from content pushed to social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter that increasingly are critical parts of distribution strategies. And the rankings are just beginning to incorporate data from platforms such as YouTube.
“Internally, we talk about social media traffic the same way as out-of-home TV data,” Coletti said. “It’s something we’re still only really just beginning to fully understand. … And comScore, like any other data vendor, is trying to keep pace with what’s happening out in the market. They were out in front on mobile traffic, and now we’re looking to see better metrics for social media as well as connected TV.”
Because of that marked undercounting in off-platform digital traffic, the relative importance of the comScore rankings has diminished somewhat of late. For many years, the rankings were an all-important bellwether of publisher strength, and often made a difference in engaging advertising clients. But more recently, many digital sports media outlets have found other ways, including their own proprietary data, to show audited traffic to clients and market their audiences.
“I believe there is still growth in the category to be had, but it’s just going to be coming from different places,” said Jeff Gerttula, CBS Sports Digital senior vice president and general manager. “And like a lot of other places, we are making a specific point to lean hard to our core strengths and our own differentiators in the marketplace.”
The next several months of comScore data will still be closely watched as the category enters its heaviest months of the year that correspond with the NFL and college football seasons, fantasy football, MLB playoff seasons, and the beginning of the NBA and NHL seasons. ESPN already has some signs of resurgence as it reported internal measures showing its biggest digital day ever on Sept. 17 with 2.1 billion minutes of consumption and a combined average minute audience of 1.5 million across its various digital properties.