The Times, They Are A Changing. But In What Direction?

As someone who has been that proverbial old man yelling at cloud when it comes to media caring one iota about ratings, I have been more than a bit bemused by both the level of scrutiny and spin that we’ve seen from the CW, the LIV Golf Tour and its competitors about how successful-or not-the viewership figures were for last weekend’s 2023 kickoff tournament in Mayakopa.

This is clearly a flashpoint for both the golf and media measurement communities, and comes at a time when both are being challenged by LIV, the “sportswashed” funded, Saudi Arabian-financed tour that has siphoned off numerous PGA stars, several top TV personalities and carved out a deal with the CW, a broadcast network that had never had live sports on its air in its history.  For those politically charged reasons, as well as the PGA’s intense pressure on its existing broadcast partners to eschew the siren’s song of what many consider to be dirty money, there’s quite a lot of attention being paid to the performance of what was otherwise a nominally significant sports event.

Enough so that a site simply called GOLF devoted quite a bit of space to attempt to explain media measurement to its readers, via James Colgan’s somewhat impartial explaining.  Let’s unpack:

Generally speaking, TV viewership data is both a) complicated and b) devoid of context, which makes it uniquely c) susceptible to heavy manipulation at the hands of those disseminating the information.

Networks almost never experience true victory laps — in which ratings rise beyond even the wildest dreams of their most exuberant executive — but networks almost always make it appear as though that is the case. Great network executives are like illusionists, capable of hiding mistakes and misgivings in their data in plain sight.

If you’re a regular reader of the Hot Mic, perhaps you’ve noticed we don’t spend much time discussing ratings. This is because we, like you, don’t enjoy trading in half-truths (and maybe also a little bit because we are very bad at math). But this week, LIV’s broadcast debut on the CW has placed TV ratings talk front and center in the golf world, so we are going to take a moment to give our best no-spin interpretation of what’s actually going on.

When initial viewership results were announced on Sunday and Monday for the CW’s broadcast coverage of the tournament’s concluding rounds, they were presented in a highly negative light.  As Colgan continued:

Per a Monday Sports Business Journal report citing Nielsen data, LIV had an average audience of some 291,000 viewers during Sunday’s final-round broadcast. More data from ESPN and outlets like Sports Media Watch reinforced SBJ’s original reporting. Put up against the PGA Tour, which had an average audience of 2.42 million for the relatively low-key Honda Classic on Sunday, that qualifies as … not great.

But on Friday morning, LIV released a report of its own that claimed it received “more than 1.3 million total linear viewers” during Sunday’s final round and “more than 3.2 million total viewers” for the weekend, seemingly contradicting SBJ’s earlier report.

LIV’s numbers reflect multiplatform reach and comes from iSpot.  As any regular reader here likely knows, iSpot is being increasingly seen as a more inclusive and accepted competitor to Nielsen,  As Colgan reminded his readers:

iSpotTV is fairly popular in major media. It was even used by NBC over Nielsen for some of NBC’s most important advertiser-facing work in 2022. As best we can tell, iSpotTV and Nielsen have proven relatively comparable when it comes to measuring audiences.

And Colgan also pulled back the curtain on the concept of spin:

As far as we can tell, LIV’s data utilized what one might call “trick arithmetic.” Rather than report the “average audience,” the traditional metric in sports TV ratings, LIV reported its “total reach.”

By reporting its “total reach,” LIV provided a metric that made its audience sound larger next to other sports TV ratings. Should the Tour report its own “total reach” metric, it likely would outnumber LIV’s proportionally to the two entities’ average audiences. It’s believed the total reach for an average Tour broadcast is around 15 million, though we don’t have official data from the Tour from last weekend’s Honda Classic.

The PGA has put intense pressure on its broadcast and advertising partners to consider LIV irrelevent.  Even though LIV technically made a broadcast network deal with the CW, a number of its affiliates who are owned by CBS Stations declined to carry the telecast, forcing the network to pursue a syndication-like strategy to reach the 100 per cent coverage they have touted to their advertisers.  And it was those stations that perhaps had the optimal environment to air live sports, as many have carried both CBS network events that have been in conflict with local commitments, as well as syndicated and local sports rights in many markets.

It’s also important to consider that the NBC data for the Honda Open included viewership from Peacock, not to mention related coverage from its Golf Channel subsidiary, a symbiotic relationship that has been in place for many PGA events for decades.  And both NBC and Peacock heavily promote their coverage in well-viewed and compatible sports events such as Premier League soccer.  The CW’s legacy has been with now-eschewed young adult-appeal scripted dramas, while its largest affiliates, owned by Nexstar (nee Tribune) and with scant little sports presence, are in a transition stage under new ownership.

Which is why the more nuanced view that Adam Woodard of Golfweek took, which included more context from both LIV and the CW, should not be completely dismissed as spin:

LIV’s report also stated an average linear viewership domestically in the United States of more than 537,000, which it claims is more than the current season viewership average of the MLS (343,000), NHL (373,000) and the 2023 Australian Open men’s tennis final (439,000). 

It’s easy to make jokes about some of the programming on the CW, but LIV airing in every U.S. market was key for its development in 2023. If accurate, the reported numbers are another step forward, but let’s not forget this was LIV’s first event of the season, not to mention it compared its viewership to the season averages of three of the least-watched major sports in America.

That said, according to Nielsen, the CW’s weekend primetime national ratings were up 24 percent compared to the network’s weekend season-to-date average. With Friday’s opening round only available via live stream, LIV reported a 40 percent month-to-month increase in downloads of the CW app, as well as 350,000 views over its new app, LIV Golf Plus.

In light of some other news regarding the potential collapse of four more regional sports networks, those now owned by Warner Discovery and branded as AT&T SportsNets, these nuances and relative success as a starting point are all the more significant.  Four MLB teams—face the possibility of having the rug pulled out from them two days into the upcoming season, as Derek Baine of Forbes doefully reported last week:

WBD reportedly sent a letter to the owner of teams that it airs on its four RSN subsidiaries do not have the money to pay upcoming rights fees and WBD will not fund any shortfalls. WBD has proposed handing control of the RSNs over to the teams and leagues, or putting them into Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

WBD has notified 10 teams associated with the NBA (Blazers, Jazz, Rockets), NHL (Kraken, Penguins, Golden Knights) and MLB (Astros, Mariners, Pirates, Rockies) that they have until March 31 to negotiate a buyback of their rights.

And where might these disenfranchised teams turn to ensure that fans still have the chance to see their teams’ games?  While the overwhelming desire of leagues and teams is to offer direct-to-consumer packages via multiplatform for monthly subscriptions, it is both unrealistic and naive to believe the demand for a $30-a-month package is within reach of all but the most passionate sliver of fans.  Indeed, many of these teams are looking to broadcast TV to be one spoke in a multiplatform strategy that will include over-the-top viewing options via apps similar to the one that was offered via LIV Golf Plus.  Stations groups such as Scripps, Gray, Sinclair and, yes, Nexstar are already starting divisions in their companies to pursue options with local teams, offering partial schedules on their broadcast stations; in Scripps’ case, they also have the ION network, comprised of over-the-air stations that were once the domain of the PAX Network and a ton of paid programming, for national reach.

If this rings any bells with veteran observers, it should. A combination of broadcast and subscription coverage goes back to the earliest days of cable and subscription TV.  The Los Angeles Dodgers’ first-ever telecasts of home games were on Dodgervision, a subscription service that was offered via the sorely missed Z Channel, and supplemented an over-the-air road game schedule.  The likes of ONTV and WHT offered home games of several major league teams’ games through a scrambled signal on an otherwise insignificant over-the-air station that eschewed programming prime time for this option.  These existed before cable reached enough homes to make regional sports networks viable. and long before FOX tried to aggregate them into a de facto unwired network that became FOX Sports Net, which are now the same AT&T SportsNet outlets that are facing extinction, as well as the Sinclair-backed Diamond Sports (nee Bally’s) RSNs that are also heading for bankruptcy.

And if indeed some of these teams reach deals with CW affiliates, don’t think that won’t help the chances for future LIV coverage to be better promoted and received linerally.  And the need for these teams to force these stations into similar over-the-top offerings to LIV Gold Plus will be part of that strategy.   And the need for a better mousetrap to capture all the scurrying mice watching content such as iSpot grows ever larger.  And the challenge to Nielsen to get their act together and accelerate a solution that, to this point, is only presenting proprietary data to advertisers, and not to the public and the investment community, becomes more daunting.

Competing forces looking to get the prize.  If that sounds like a bygone era to you, we’re in agreement.  And perhaps in a similar old school fashion, we’ll be encouraged by the prescient words of Robert Zimmerman that spelled it out in beautiful prose:

Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
‘Cause the times, they are a-changin’

Yes, golf fans.  Yes, RSN subscribers.  They ARE changing.  But ask your folks if they’re changing only in one direction.

Until next time….




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