While the inside sports media bubble admittedly does not comprise a large cross section of the broader population, the niche was buzzing last week when ESPN slid the following sentences in a press release that was otherwise about Stephen A. Smith NBA Finals SportsCenter specials: “April’s 6 p.m. SportsCenter averaged 526,000 viewers, a nine percent rise over the 483,000 average for April of 2017. The growth for April followed a four percent year-over-year rise in viewership for March.”
If this was not a shot at Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, who left the 6pm SportsCenter program earlier this year after a little over a year of rocky content and relationships with ESPN management, a number of people thought it felt it like one. After a thorough examination of the numbers, it was not an inaccurate statement by ESPN, but what was left unsaid was that Tiger Woods’ appearance in this year’s Masters was a huge variable in how it all shook out.
First, here are the numbers that ESPN accounted for in this statement, with viewership numbers all via Showbuzz Daily:
A few things to point out. First, Nielsen’s measurement for April 2017 included March 27-April 30, while 2018’s measurement period went from April 2 until April 29. So, there was an extra week in March. Further, an ESPN spokesperson confirmed to The Big Lead that their numbers include SportsCenter episodes that occurred in the 7pm hours during both 2017 and 2018 during the Masters.
The episodes are delineated in the above table with asterisks. This year those episodes averaged 1.174 million and 1.848 million viewers for 39 minutes and 14 minutes, respectively. Last year it was 832,000 and 948,000 for 28 and 21 minutes. The average accounts for these episodes as having been for partial hours. Our table corresponded exactly with what ESPN counted 2017 as, and was off by less than 1% on its average for 2018, which could easily be attributed to a rounding error.
There was a major difference in viewership for The Masters this year versus last, because Tiger Woods was there this year. Viewership on ESPN went from 2.129 million and 2.603 million on Thursday and Friday in 2017 to 2.961 million and 3.913 million this year.
If you separated out the Masters episodes of SportsCenter, and normalized the April calendar between last year and this year (which would include May 1st of 2017), this is what the numbers would look like:
A few more caveats here: This table includes the viewership of 799,000 on April 27th of this year. This is not included in ESPN’s numbers for 2018 SportsCenter because it was an NFL Draft special this year. However, because Mike and Jemele were on for the corresponding day last year, I think it’s more fair to include it for 2018. The Draft is a tentpole event where far more people are tuning in for the special occasion rather than the personalities. However, if we didn’t include that this year, the 6pm SportsCenter’s in April would have averaged 475.5 thousand viewers, a miniscule leap from the year before.
Even with the numbers ESPN was citing, 6pm Sportscenter loses over 30% of the PTI audience, compared with about 36% that SC6 lost during the April Nielsen period a year ago. Just because nothing ESPN has tried has worked does not mean that more of this lead-in could not be salvaged with the right programming. (One idea: Robert Seidman wrote about the idea of giving the time slot to Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann, and stripping the SportsCenter title.)
In conclusion, by normalizing April and separating out the Tiger Woods effect, SportsCenter would still be up 5% year-over-year. That’s not nothing, but it provides some context to the assertion that it was up 9% last month.