When the hand-wringing began late last year over the disappearance of male viewers 18 to 34 on the broadcast networks, ESPN was able to quietly sit back and smile. Company executives were content to know that men in all demographic groups were still watching the sports network.
Now, with Nielsen reporting that young men are back, ESPN still has an advantage in reaching that coveted demo. Men 18 to 34 have been ESPN’s bread and butter for the past 25 years. That demo includes the biggest consumers of sports, said Artie Bulgrin, the network’s senior VP of research and sales development.
“That is a tough demographic to reach, as everyone knows, and ESPN has that demo’s attention whether NFL football or X Games,” said Vance Overbey, executive director of advertising and sponsorships for Cingular Wireless, a regular ESPN advertiser.
In the second quarter of this year, ESPN’s total-day rating for men 18 to 34 was a 0.77, up 24 percent over the year before. In addition, the prime-time audience rose 27 percent in the second quarter to a 1.04 in men 18 to 34, up from a 0.82.
The National Basketball Association playoffs were a primary driver of that growth. ESPN’s sophomore year offering NBA postseason competition afforded more experience and awareness, which helped increase viewership, Mr. Bulgrin said. Also, the popularity of the women’s NCAA Tournament boosted the network’s numbers, he said.
Poker should be a growth engine in the third quarter, since programming for the card game is up 46 percent year to year in men 18 to 34 with a 1.6. New episodes of “World Series of Poker” started in late August.
Six weeks into the third quarter of this year, ESPN’s total-day rating for men 18 to 34 is 0.73, up 26 percent over the year before.
“ESPN is the mountain of networks [for reaching men],” said Jason Kanefsky, VP and account director at Media Planning Group in New York. That’s because ESPN delivers the double whammy of being able to attract a broad range of men with franchises like the NBA and NFL while also reaching the younger demos with hockey or the X Games.
“If you close your eyes, you are going to win. That’s why ESPN sells out the way it does. It’s the easiest part of the job,” Mr. Kanefsky said.
In fact, ESPN’s success in reaching its target demo has been a barometer for the network’s overall ratings success, Mr. Bulgrin said. “If we target our message and our style toward our [core] demographic, we will get the others,” he said. “If you target a demo like men 18 to 34, you aren’t likely to alienate teens and you aren’t likely to [alienate] the older viewers.”
Much of the network’s current ratings success comes after a precipitous fall in viewership two years ago. ESPN fell to a 0.6 in total-day ratings for households in 2001. At the time, ESPN began to concentrate more on positioning the brand as an integrated entity across TV, radio, Internet and its magazine, ESPN the Magazine. “We weren’t taking advantage of the media in an integrated fashion. … There wasn’t a focused effort to promote the platforms across each other,” Mr. Bulgrin said.
As that began to change, the network’s numbers went up to a 0.77 in total-day ratings for the 12-month period through June 2004.
Today, the average American spends about 50 minutes a day with some form of ESPN media. That figure rises to an impressive two hours and 41 minutes among men 18 to 34.