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Index Will Track Vitality of Sports

Mar 13, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The biggest sports network and the leading sports media buyer have teamed to create a new scorecard to track the games people watch.

The OMD ESPN Sports Vitality Index is designed to track which sports are on the upswing and which are on the decline. That information is valuable to ESPN and ABC Sports, which pays big money to televise sports. It’s equally important to OMD, which advises its clients about how to spend about $700 million annually on sports sponsorships to reach consumers.

This pairing of a buyer and a seller is unusual, but it seems eminently logical. “It’s not often that a big media-buying agency and a media seller will jointly do research of this kind,” said Ed Erhardt, president of customer marketing and sales for ESPN and ABC Sports. “We see them as a very valued partner, obviously a significant buyer and expert in sports.”

“This is another manifestation of OMD’s commitment to working with media partners to help learn more about consumer behavior,” said Joe Uva, CEO of OMD Worldwide.

The two companies plan to take the current Sports Vitality Index-an offshoot of the decade-old ESPN Sports Poll, done in conjunction with research company TNS Sport-and add new elements to it.

Phase one determines the current vitality of a sport by measuring its fan base and the intensity of those fans and tracking the change over time. In phase two, ratings, merchandise sales, attendance and buzz will be factored in to create a more complete picture.

“Obviously, if you look at what’s happening with ratings on that sport, what’s happening with ad revenues against that sport, what’s happening with the number of sponsors against that sport-if all of those or some of those are going up, you’re able to paint a picture that’s a pretty robust picture of a given sport against all of its various attributes,” Mr. Erhardt said.

Mr. Uva expects the venture to track how consumers are consuming sports using new technologies.

“We’ve always lived with the major sports and they’ve always been available to us on either national or local television. Today there are more sports available and more outlets and the major sports are available on more platforms,” he said.

He thinks the index will be able to measure the growth of extreme sports, such as snowboarding, as they become more mainstream and that that knowledge will help marketers contact hard-to-reach consumer targets, such as young men.

And while dollars may follow viewership from television to broadband, mobile and other platforms, that won’t necessarily hurt ESPN. “Look at how many screens ESPN touches and how many networks it has,” Mr. Uva said.

While aspects of the Sports Vitality Index are proprietary, each company will be able to use other parts of it to do business. OMD has used the index during new business presentations to demonstrate its insights into the sports world. In addition to using it in evaluating rights deals, ESPN can use it to demonstrate value to advertisers who are not OMD clients.

That’s important now, with clients looking for more evidence that they’re getting a return on their marketing investments. With the index, “There’s some empirical evidence they can point to to be able to say over the last X, Y and Z quarters we’ve seen growth in this particular sport over a wide variety of attributes,” Mr. Erhardt said.

Some of the early findings of the Sports Vitality Index are hardly surprising. The National Football League is the No. 1 sport, followed by Major League Baseball, which continues to strengthen despite the controversy surrounding the use of steroids by players, reportedly including Barry Bond, the homerun king who will be featured in a reality show on ESPN.

“It hasn’t really affected baseball at all,” said Artie Bulgrin, senior VP of research and sales development for ESPN. Mr. Bulgrin said a sport that gains additional respect from the Sports Vitality Index is NASCAR.

“NASCAR is a sport that has a moderate fan base overall when you compare it to the biggest sports, like NFL or Major League Baseball, but [the fans] generally have a greater intensity,” he said. Another hot sport when it comes to fan intensity is the National Hot Rod Association.

The index also indicates that the NHL has snapped back considerably after missing a season with a strike. But it may be too early to make that assessment, Mr. Uva said. “We’re going to wait till the season gets into playoffs before we start to make any value judgments or assessments,” he said.

Overall, Mr. Bulgrin said, the vitality of sports is at near-record levels. There are 240 million sports fans in the U.S., he said.

“Clearly, sports is the most pervasive entertainment genre we have in this country,” Mr. Bulgrin said.