The self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports hasn't, in fact, been the leader in online traffic in quite some time. But that changed in September when ESPN.com registered 52 million unique visitors in the U.S., according to ComScore, helping it unseat Yahoo Sports from the No. 1 spot for the first time since March 2008. Yahoo Sports had 49 million uniques.
The 52 million unique visitors was a record for ESPN, whose previous high was 43 million in November 2010.
September is typically one of the strongest web-traffic months for sports properties, thanks to the kickoff of the college, professional and fantasy football seasons as well as pennant races in Major League Baseball, which were especially compelling this year.
David Coletti, ESPN's VP-digital media research and analytics, attributed the record month to a continued build-out of ESPN's core digital content products -- breaking-news articles, opinion columns and fantasy-football content across ESPN.com and its five local sites -- as well as an improved Gamecast product for tracking games and matches in real-time. In the spring, ESPN also launched its WatchESPN mobile app, which gives cable subscribers access to live ESPN games on their mobile phones.
Mr. Coletti also pointed to Bill Simmons' new property, Grantland.com, which launched four months ago, as a "very strong" traffic driver. Grantland's traffic is included in the total for ESPN.
"Grantland has a very distinct audience," Mr. Coletti said. "It's very male, young, and rather upscale. There's been really strong daily usage."
ESPN.com has continued to add staff across its existing properties, helping to increase its content output.
While Mr. Coletti called the unique-visitor record a "wonderful 'reach' number," he said he pays more attention to ESPN.com's average minute audience -- the number of people who are on one of ESPN's digital properties at any given time. That number was nearly 108,000 in September, he said.
"ESPN is the quintessential cross-platform media company so we look for metrics that translate across platforms," he said. "Our strong belief is that it's a much better metric that correlates to ad impressions than unique visitor."
In a statement, a Yahoo spokesperson said that Yahoo Sports still leads the category in worldwide traffic.
"For three years running, Yahoo Sports has been and remains the number one global online destination for sports programming," the statement said. "Using our leadership in investigative journalism, record breaking traffic for the #1 fantasy destination, and high quality, personally relevant content, we will continue to engage our massive audience -- with 20 percent more daily visitors than anyone else -- create opportunities for our audience and advertisers, and provide premium content for our sports fans in the U.S. and around the world."
Mr. Coletti, of ESPN, said he expects November to be another strong month for the site, though he admits it's too early to evaluate how much the NBA lockout will impact traffic.
"It's important to us and we'll keep an eye on it," he said, "but it's still a little early."