It’s all about context really. People expected viewership numbers to be OK after an amazing final between eventual champion Villanova and North Carolina. After all, it was two big schools from big conferences, and the game was close; ending in Kris Jenkins amazing buzzer beater after Marcus Paige’s heave to tie the game. Then the viewership numbers came out and they were dismal compared to last year. There was a 37-percent drop in overall viewership, but that doesn’t mean the game was a failure.
First things first, the game was played on cable. Sure it was Turner networks which is the basic tier of cable, but that is still considered cable. Those games always get less viewers — CBS is in 20 million more households than TBS/TNT. The game was actually the second highest rated college basketball game in cable history behind last year’s undefeated Kentucky v. senior laden Wisconsin Final Four matchup. Comparing TBS/TNT to CBS isn’t an apples to apples comparison.
Which brings up a larger point. Standard ratings numbers can’t be the end-all be-all any longer for the success of sports in media. People point to cord cutters for the drop, but they don’t make up 37-percent in viewership numbers. Fox Sports and Outkick the Coverage’s Clay Travis does have an interesting view on things.
The answer isn’t just old people, or the number of homes, or cord cutters, or monitoring the game through social media. It is a combination, which means any person or company relying on ratings only is simply measuring influence incorrectly.
Moving forward there must be a way to measure a combined level of engagement and interaction. It didn’t seem from Facebook and Twitter that less people were watching the game. Tweets, posts, likes, etc. should be accounted for during any big-time ratings story. On Facebook Live, Villanova’s viewership has grown from 26,000 on the first stream to 79,000 viewers for their latest stream. That should matter to people looking to market and advertise in that demo.
This is easier said than done. The ratings system has worked for so long that it won’t be easily displaced. Companies such as Nielsen are looking for interesting ways to measure this type of engagement and interaction because it means more if fans are engaged because they may be actually focusing on advertisements and sponsorships. If a fans social feed is sports-focused during a certain game or event, it’s another touch-point for advertisers and partners.
Viewers are dispersing over multiple distribution channels and people are becoming more engaged in games through social and digital media. The 37-percent drop isn’t the end of the world, because it’s not the same measuring stick as it was 10 years ago. The measurement of success needs to be different.
Michael Colangelo is Managing Editor of The Fields of Green and Assistant Director at the USC Sports Business Institute.