Going into the season, one of the biggest questions regarding the Big East was how much of an impact leaving ESPN for FOX Sports would have on the TV ratings. Getting a wide audience is a crucial aspect of maintaining national relevance for a regional league, not to mention a key selling point to potential recruits who want to play on a large stage.
Undoubtedly it was going to be a drastic change, but making the switch from the worldwide leader to a channel that isn’t even six months old was the tallest of orders. It took ESPN decades to build the cache it currently holds, so no one, absolutely no one, was anticipating FOX to exceed or even match Bristol’s numbers. Still, the size of the fall would be interesting to see.
We hypothesized that there would be a dip in viewership back in June, arguing that FOX wildly overpaid for the content it was receiving. With the non-conference season now over, we had a large enough sample to start drawing some mid-season conclusions.
(All figures were taken from Son of the Bronx, without whom any of this would be possible. They only include games in which a Big East team was involved this season.)
As you can see from the chart above, FOX Sports 1 and FOX Sports 2 are trailing all the other national networks when it comes to Big East viewership, which is not a good sign as those two channels will have a majority of the conference games. But a simple chart with no explanation or analysis serves no one, so we broke it down a little further.
FS1 had the most Big East games of any channel, broadcasting 48 of the 85 national TV games. Of those 48 games, 41 had a rating of 0, five had a rating of 0.1, and two had a rating of 0.2. While these are definitely underwhelming numbers, it shows the double edged sword that is extensive coverage. More games will be on national TV, but a good number of those games will be duds. Villanova vs. Towson took the crown as least watched game, drawing 8,000 viewers for the Sunday night tilt. Were ESPN still the Big East’s home base, this game would have been relegated to ESPN3 status and wouldn’t drag down the average.
There’s no way to sugarcoat the FS2 numbers. All 14 games failed to crack the 40,000 viewer mark and eight of those couldn’t even muster 8,000. Seton Hall’s game against Monmouth on Monday, Nov. 18 only had 1,000 people watching. At this point, FS2’s reach is so nonexistent it might actually be advantageous to be on a regional network. We are working on acquiring local broadcast numbers for the regional FOX stations. Any input would be appreciated.
To truly highlight ESPN’s power, it would be prudent to note that the top rated FS1 Big East game this season (Providence vs. Kentucky; 360,000 viewers) would be the ninth most watched Big East game on ESPN/2, only beating out one game. It’s expected that the average FS1 game will have much lower ratings than the average ESPN/2 game, but it is dire that even propelled by Big Blue Nation on a Sunday night, FS1 couldn’t beat out 90 percent of the ESPN/2 games.
As a comparison, an unranked Kentucky team drew 427,000 viewers to ESPNU at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday last season when they faced an also unranked South Carolina. This tells us a big part of FS1’s problems right now is getting people to find the channel and stay there when they do find it, as Kentucky was ranked this time around. If the Cats can’t draw big ratings, I wouldn’t expect big things for the rest of the season.
But projection has no place in this piece. We are simply analyzing the existing data. And what better way to do that than to compare last season’s data to this season’s.
The current Big East teams averaged 380,550 viewers in 40 non-conference games in 2012-’13. Those same teams averaged 137,073 viewers this year, but there were twice as many games (85). Again, it’s a double-edged sword. You want more coverage, but that may mean smaller audiences on average.
It’s too early in the season, year and TV contract to sound off any warning bells. FS1 is still a niche channel, struggling to get ratings in all aspects apart from a random UFC fight here and there. As an example, a rerun of Fish Hooks on the Disney Channel at 5 a.m. on Monday had more viewers (1,562,000) than the highest rated FS1 show last week (1,550,000 viewers on Saturday night for UFC PPV prelims). Oh, and that Fish Hooks episode was only the 146th most watched show on the channel.
There’s only one way to go from here.