Big East, FOX Sports 1 ratings pick up steam in March

(Editorial Note: This is the first of three installments diving into the TV ratings for FOX Sports 1 and the Big East. To see the full TV data, head over to our Google Spreadsheet, compiled by Andrei Greska using the data from Sports Media Watch.)

One of the biggest questions going into the inaugural season of the reconstituted Big East was how would the move to FOX Sports 1 would affect ratings. I speculated around this time last year that FOX had vastly overpaid for the Big East as it wasn’t much of a ratings boon on an individual or group level. A cluster of private institutions with relatively small enrollments simply doesn’t have as big a base as a behemoth Land Grant U.

With one season under the belt, how did those ratings turn out?

Short answer. They were awful.

As a whole, FS1 averaged 108,535 viewers and 0.07 rating in the 155 games it broadcast. In comparison ESPN, the competitor FS1 aims to beat, averaged 1,431,634 viewers and a 0.95 rating. To put that into further perspective, the least watched game on ESPN this season would have been the fourth-most watched game on FS1, drawing 410,000 viewers and a o.3 rating. Marquette was the featured team in that game.

But realistically, absolutely no one in their right mind would put the Worldwide Leader, a 30-year-old established brand with more klout and influence than any sports channel ever created, as a measuring stick for a network in the infancy of its infancy. Instead, what was truly in question was how it might compare to ESPN2, ESPNU and NBCSports, peers that FS1 might be able to rival in a short amount of time.

  Viewers Ratings
ESPN2 417,194 0.28
ESPNU 140,088 0.09
NBCSN 84,233 0.04
FS1 108,535 0.07

Here’s a useful graph to make it easier to compare.

As both the chart and graph show, FS1 was able to top NBC Sports, but fell a bit short of ESPNU and well below ESPN2. This is pretty much in line with where it was projected to be eight months in, if not a tad below the original outlook. FS1 boasts that it reaches 90 million households, about 9 million less than ESPN2 but 15 million more than ESPNU and 12 million more than NBCSN.  It will be interesting to see how the ratings compare in Year 2, once finding the channel isn’t an adventure and the brand becomes a part of the general fan’s sports rotation.    

But in this day and age, waiting a year is akin to waiting a lifetime. The jury is already out the prognosis is negative. FS1 sucks. The Big East sucks. Run while you can. Is there any merit to it?

Let’s take a closer look.

The first thing that most analyses of the FS1 basketball ratings fail to acknowledge is the sheer breadth of coverage is bound to dilute the data. What does that mean? Having more nationally televised games will mean there are more clunkers with little audience interest being shown. Only diehards are going to tune in as Villanova takes on Towson at 5 p.m. on a Sunday.

Whereas before these cupcakes were limited to regional coverage, and thus not included in the data, they now tell the world exactly how meager the audience is. It also chips at the overall average a bit, skewing the average numbers downward. More national TV games is definitely a benefit worth touting, but it’s a double edged sword. 

For FS1 as a whole, the month of November was brutal, ratings wise, with the average basketball telecast drawing in 64, 813 viewers and a .03 rating. Limited to just games featuring a Big East team, the numbers were even worse (59,688 viewers and 0.2 rating). One factor is simply that no one knew it existed. Sure, there was a media blitz, but I couldn’t tell you the amount of times we got Tweets asking what channel FS1 was at for ‘X’ cable company. And this was from fans actively seeking out the game, not casual viewers settling in for the night. 

The biggest factor, though, was the dearth of quality games. Of the 16 tilts broadcast on FS1, only four were between high-major teams. Unsurprisingly, those garnered the top three most viewed games, with Marquette at ASU coming in fifth. The rest were contests that would be lucky to have made ESPNNews, and would have been relegated to regional coverage 95% of the time.

The ESPN networks have the luxury of owning the rights to so many leagues, they can pick and choose the most interesting non-conference games with the best teams and most passionate fan bases. It doesn’t have to settle for Providence vs. Vermont when it has Memphis vs. Oklahoma State on ESPN and  Michigan vs. Iowa State on the Deuce. FS1 simply doesn’t have that luxury at this point, and won’t until it picks up some more contracts. (It currently shares PAC-12 duties with ESPN and the PAc-12 Network and has a smattering of Conference USA games as well). Throw in the fact that the ESPN networks practically have a monopoly on the early season Tournaments and FS1 doesn’t stand a chance.

If this is the case, though, then there should be an obvious uptick in ratings and viewers for FS1 once the conference season began as there are more interesting tilts and bigger names on regular basis. Does the data bare this out?

November 1,233,000 359,628 121,750 110,500 157,100 64,813
December 1,464,769 501,051 141,650 33,000 77,600 77,381
January 1,486,367 449,514 139,688 58,143 47,529 97,263
February 1,430,477 378,608 139,792 48,625 92,500 112,639
March 1,414,030 396,143 161,417 73,143 70,857 200,080

Yes. 1,000 times, yes. 

FOX Sports 1 was the only network to see positive growth every month of the season. Here’s an easier to read graph, with ESPN taken out for clarity.

FS1 more than tripled its average viewership from November 2013 to March 2014. If this was simply a college basketball thing (with interest really starting in March), you’d see the same trends for all the networks, but that isn’t the case. Percentage-wise FS1 was the only network to not see a decline at some point.

Nov. to Dec. 18.8% 39.32% 16.34% -70.14% -50.6% 19.39%
Dec. to Jan. 1.47% -10.29% -1.39% 76.19% -38.75% 25.69%
Jan. to Feb. -3.76% -15.77% 0.07% -16.37% 94.62% 15.81%
Feb. to Mar. -1.15% 4.63% 15.47% 50.42% -23.4% 77.63%
Nov. to Mar. 14.68% 10.15% 32.58% -33.81% -54.9% 208.7%

So let’s try this again.With one season under the belt, how did those ratings turn out?

A slow start gave way to a roaring finish at FS1. Overall, a B+ on a curved scale.

So while it is true that FS1’s basketball ratings were weak overall in comparison to ESPN’s, the trend line is much more favorable to FS1 than pundits and ex-Big East coaches would have you believe. The big worry was that no one would watch the channel while the Big East, as well as the other leagues featured, would fade into irrelevance. The race has just begun, but that has already been disproved.

We haven’t even mentioned historical precedent, either. Take a second to let the biases you may hold for or against the network dissipate and look at the facts. FOX has had two extravagant ventures into TV land that have surpassed all expectations, wildly succeeding in every sense of the word.

For most my age, the”Big 4″ has always been ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX. But anyone over the age of 25 (as well as anyone with internet access and Wikipedia) can attest that this wasn’t always the case. FOX originated as a group of affiliates in the late 80s and morphed into a full-fledged network in 1994 after acquiring the rights to the NFL package. It’s been 20 years since then, but it is now one of the staples of broadcast television. Along similar lines, FOX News launched in 1996 and, whatever you may think of its politics or decisions, has become the most-watched news network on cable.

Long story short, feel free to dismiss FS1 at your leisure, but ask those who bet against News Corp. in the past how that turned out. FS1 may never topple ESPN from its perch, but to assume it will remain a blip in the ratings is foolish.

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8 Comments on “Big East, FOX Sports 1 ratings pick up steam in March”

  1. Matt
    April 8, 2014 at 2:10 pm #

    I remember at the beginning of the year no one could find FS1 on the cable in the Marquette dorms, but once we finally got the channel a lot more people ended up watching. I bet ratings will be way up next year, I think Fox is doing a good job building a brand.

  2. Kshoe
    April 8, 2014 at 8:57 pm #

    Seems like your numbers are skewed by a couple significant outliers.

    For example, if you take the Georgetown/Michigan St. game out of the February numbers the average for February drops to 100k, basically the same as the January number of 97k per.

    In March, your numbers include the Big East and Pac 12 championships which were noticeably higher than the regular season games. The March average without the tournaments was just 123k. Even if you include the tournaments but exclude the championship games, the number drops to 158k, well off the 200k number you report.

    • April 8, 2014 at 10:29 pm #

      I’m not sure why you would take them out. Do positive numbers not count?

  3. Betsy Ballard
    April 12, 2014 at 4:42 pm #

    I am so upset with this FOXSPORTS 1 They do not cover Nascar prerace – they shift it to Foxsports 2 which cost more money! There are times I have see Fox sports 1 shift a race to Fox 2. I think that someone should be able to do what The SPEED channel did and only cover racing. I just want you to know that not everyone that enjoys NASCAR racing cannot afford a large cable bill , they have electric, water and household bills to cover. I just cannot see how Fox 1 got such a high rating, I loathe the station!


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