Fox Sports shifts the focus to the big numbers
Network executives generally have become defensive over the past decade whenever they’ve had to talk about baseball ratings. Things are great when the Cubs or Red Sox win the World Series and viewership spikes. But when the Giants swept the Tigers in 2012 or the Phillies beat the Rays in 2008? Those were the two lowest World Series viewership numbers of all time and created a lot of angst about how the sport needed to do better to cater to younger fans.
Over the past five years, Fox Sports has been making the case that the industry is focused on the wrong numbers. Rather than pushing an average regular-season rating or focusing on a World Series rating, Fox Sports has been tabulating total viewing consumption, or the total number of minutes watched across an entire MLB season.
When you look at those numbers — an average audience multiplied by up to 150 regular-season games — they are astounding. For example, Cleveland Indians games on SportsTime Ohio and Kansas City Royals games on FS Kansas City generate more television viewing than the top 20 prime-time shows in those markets, Fox says.
“I like to believe that we have moved perception, at least within the business, about the health of the game and how so much of the health of baseball is tied to the power of the RSNs,” said Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports executive vice president of research and strategy. “In doing that, we’ve been able to get people away from looking at World Series ratings as a bellwether for the health of baseball generally. More and more, people are understanding that the right way to think about the health of baseball is to look at RSN performance over 140-145 games.”
The Indians provide a good case study to this statistic. Last season, Indians games on SportsTime Ohio averaged 121,000 households, a number that placed fifth in the market behind “The Big Bang Theory” (180,000), “NCIS” (169,000), “The Walking Dead” (132,000) and “Dancing with the Stars” (127,000).
But when Fox added up total consumption, Indians games were on top by a long shot, with 3.8 billion minutes of consumption. Using that formula, the next highest was “America’s Got Talent,” with “just” 250 million minutes.
“Each baseball game is over three hours long and we’re doing maybe 150 of them,” Mulvihill said. “A show like ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ which only airs a couple dozen times a year, has a higher average audience. But the total consumption of the show is just a fraction of what you do for baseball.”
Mulvihill also referenced the New York Yankees’ total consumption number on YES Network last season of 6.9 billion minutes, which is higher than the top 11 shows in prime time.
“If anything, based on the spring training numbers that have come in, you’d think that Yankee number is probably going to go even higher this year,” he said.
Mulvihill acknowledged that this will not become a standard that Fox Sports uses to set advertising rates. More traditional TV ratings still are much more effective for advertising campaigns.
But TV ratings have so many variations — from length of games to comparing broadcast and cable. The total consumption measure smooths that out.
“If you’re looking really big picture — how does Fox compare with Disney, compare with Comcast — I think minutes spent is really, really useful,” Mulvihill said.
The Fox Sports research department first developed the total consumption number five years ago, after seeing how digital companies like Yahoo and Facebook report their viewership numbers.
“A lot of the metrics that were coming out of the digital world were based on views and minutes of viewing — there wasn’t any digital metric that was comparable to a household rating or a demographic rating,” Mulvihill said. “They were just talking about consumption in a different way, and even though it wasn’t initiated by us, we’ve come to believe that thinking of things in terms of time consumed and time spent is a smarter and more elegant way to look at media consumption.”
John Ourand can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ Ourand_SBJ.