Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 20 No. 41

Research and Ratings

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.

The smartphone does not merely connect us to the internet. The smartphone has become life’s “remote control.” We are not just accessing information. We are becoming more active, more engaged in life beyond the internet in ways that both hurt, and help, time spent on sports. Here is a data-driven approach for harnessing the strength of the smartphone to enable richer sports experiences in real life.

Past “UpNext” columns have documented how increased time online has become the first serious competition to time on sports. The impact has been felt most among 12- to 17-year-olds (38 percent say they spend “most of the day” online, 31 percent for 18- to 34-year-olds). But time online, and having a smartphone, are two different things.

The internet provides the content. The smartphone is the delivery mechanism. Before the smartphone you had to be at a stationary location or in a zone allowing you internet access to be online. Having a smartphone is more than having access to the internet. A smartphone makes the internet part of every moment of living. It allows us to instantly modify our thinking, decisions, directions and choices. Constantly. Anywhere. The internet opened a world of information and possibilities. The smartphone has made the internet a constant.

Smartphone users place a high priority on time with friends.
Roughly 40 percent of Americans 15+ had smartphones in 2011. Today, nearly 80 percent are smartphone owners, over 90 percent of Americans 15 to 44 years old. American 10-year-olds don’t know life without smartphones. Within the next few years it no longer will be possible to study the difference between those who have smartphones and those who do not. I thought it important to consider what impact the smartphone is having on time spent on sports while we still can.

All the findings in this column come from Luker on Trends — ESPN Sports Poll from over 100,000 interviews conducted daily from 2011 through July 2017. We looked closely at differences between those who have smartphones, non-smart cellphones and no cellphone. We examined differences by age, income and year, and every difference reported appeared controlling for all groups, across all time periods.

There are 168 hours in a week. Time spent online on non-sports topics is time not spent on sports. Time online generally takes away from time on sports. It would be tempting to assume time lost on sports for smartphone users would be even worse because they have constant access to the internet. It is not true. In reality, smartphone users are more engaged broadly in life than non-smartphone users.

Smartphone users most definitely spend more time online. Spending free time online is a marginally higher priority to smartphones users than others. Social networking, streaming videos and listening to music are favorite online activities to more smartphone users compared to others (who are more likely to favor searching and exchanging email). While online, smartphone users are more interested in social networking and streaming than spending time online to follow sports.

But smartphone users are also marginally bigger sports fans, watch more sports on TV and give sports higher priority than those without smartphones. Smartphone users are substantially more likely to play sports and/or exercise regularly than others.

Now we get to the good part. With all the competition for free time, it is important for fans to feel a part of the sports experience. Smartphone owners are meaningfully more likely to have a favorite team (94 percent) compared to non-smart cellphone owners (90 percent) and non-cell owners (85 percent). It is important to more smartphone owners (60 percent) to feel they belong to their favorite team (49 percent non-smart; 48 percent non-cell). More smartphone owners (16 percent) say it is very important to belong and feel they very much belong to their team (10 percent non-smart / 14 percent non-cell). Sixty percent of smartphone owners generally plan to watch with others when they watch sports events (46 percent non-smart / 40 percent non-cell). When they engage in family outings, 37 percent of smartphone owners are the ones to make it happen most or all the time (26 percent non-smart / 25 percent non-cell).

Luker on Trends measures the priority people give to spending free time on the 10 primary contexts. Spending time with family and friends are the highest priorities for everyone, and higher for smartphone owners than others. Smartphone users give higher priority to every aspect of an active life compared to those who do not have a smartphone. By contrast, watching non-sports TV is the only free-time category where smartphone users have a lower priority than the others.

Today, spending time online is a higher priority than spending time on sports for smartphone users. While 37 percent of smartphone users say time online adds to their time on sports, 35 percent say time online takes time away from sports. But there is a path forward for improving the priority of sports generally. More than others, smartphone users are more active in life overall, have a higher priority for time with family and friends, plan to watch sports with others, play sports and exercise, and are the ones who get family and friends to come together.

The novelty of time online is starting to wear off. The number of people saying they spend all day online is down for the first time in six years. Sixty-three percent of smartphone users say they would like to spend less time online, and 65 percent say they have done things to get away from technology.

The smartphone is now life’s “remote control.” Using a smartphone is not about doing more online, it is about using online technology to be more truly engaged, active, and actually with family and friends. The internet is not the destination, it facilitates the ability to be with others in real destinations. I had to include my Luker on Trends partner, Chad Menefee, as our “Forward Thinker” in this piece because he is 30 years younger than me and reminded me the future is not in the technology, but in the relationships enabled by technology. One might have expected him to want to find more things to do online.


Partner, Luker on Trends
Executive director, ESPN Sports Poll
Lead consultant to ESPN and NFL

What is the greatest value of the smartphone for sports?
“The smartphone might end up being the greatest driver for attending live sports — just not in the ways we thought a few years ago. Teams have been pushing Wi-Fi in stadiums so fans can order food or merchandise from their seats, check stats and fantasy, and use social media. I’m connected to devices all day long, so there are many days when I just want to disconnect. That gets harder and harder when we can even buy toothbrushes that are connected online today.

“I know I’m not alone. We see evidence of technology fatigue in our own research as people are actively looking for ways to get away from their smartphones. In fact, the youngest are both the most connected and the most fatigued. Attending could be about spending time with others and getting away from technology for a few hours, yet it seems that very few are positioning it that way. Someone is going to seize that space in the next few years, so why couldn’t it be sports?”

Rich Luker ( is the founder of Luker on Trends and the ESPN Sports Poll.