Drinks Are on the House: Out-of-Home Gives ESPN's College Football Coverage a 10% Lift

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Nearly a full fiscal quarter after ESPN became the first television network to negotiate for the inclusion of out-of-home deliveries in its deals with advertisers, the initial batch of Nielsen data suggests that viewing in bars, gyms and other public venues is winning back a not-insignificant volume of "lost" impressions.

According to Nielsen's newly-processed horde of out-of-home data, ESPN in October enjoyed a 7% lift in its overall deliveries among adults 18-49, thanks to concentrated viewing by the nation's gym rats, bar flies and other sports fans watching from beyond the bounds of their own living rooms. The out-of-home lift for the adults 25-54 demo was also +7% in that same period, which was bookended by such big-reach draws as the Oct. 3 Giants-Vikings showdown on "Monday Night Football" and an Oct. 29 clash between Big Ten rivals Michigan and Michigan State.

On a sport-by-sport basis, college football saw the biggest out-of-home lift in the key sales demos, as deliveries for adults 18-49 and 25-54 were up 9% compared to ESPN's linear TV ratings. On a percentage basis, younger college football fans put up the greatest gains when the out-of-home numbers were added to the ratings mix, as adults 18-34 grew 10% thanks to the recently ratified system of measurement.

A deeper dive into the October ratings pool demonstrates how college football moved the chains for ESPN in early fall. Over the course of the month, ESPN and spinoff net ESPN2 combined to air 53 college games, an onslaught that included action from the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12 conferences. The average draw for those 53 telecasts was 1.12 million viewers, per Nielsen's standard in-home ratings service.

When viewers in bars, taverns, hotels, gyms, restaurants and other public venues were factored into ESPN and ESPN2's college football deliveries, that initial reckoning jumped 6% to 1.19 million viewers. Toss in those who streamed the October games via the WatchESPN app, and the average draw for the in-home ESPN/ESPN2 college football slate jumped 10% to 1.23 million viewers, reflecting a net gain of 106,779 sets of eyeballs.

ESPN's broadcast sibling ABC also experienced a marked expansion of its college football audience when out-of-home viewing was brought to bear on its linear TV ratings. In its 12 October broadcasts (a roster that included four prime-time games), ABC averaged 5.01 million viewers, but the vanilla TV data only tells part of the story. Per Nielsen, out-of-home deliveries contributed more than one-quarter of a million additional college football viewers, which bumped up ABC's average to just north of 5.26 million viewers, a gain of 5%. (With streaming, which contributed another 84,000 viewers, ABC's October average improved 7% to more than 5.34 million viewers.)

Out-of-home lifts for ESPN's regular-season NBA coverage and "Monday Night Football" slate were largely consistent with its college football gains.

As a rule of thumb, the bigger the traditional in-home TV audience, the more people you can expect to be watching while grinding it out on a treadmill or bellied up to the bar at their local watering hole. The aforementioned Giants-Vikings game, which drew a live-plus-same-day audience of 13.2 million homebodies? When out-of-home and streaming deliveries were lasagna-ed atop the standard Nielsen TV numbers, well over 14 million fans watched as Minnesota continued its implacable domination over Eli Manning, who has posted a lifetime 3-6 record and a meager 56.1 QB rating against the Vikes.

Live sports coverage aside, ESPN also experienced encouraging lifts in its "SportsCenter" franchise. The biggest out-of-home gains appear to coincide with peak gym hours; per Nielsen, deliveries for the 7 a.m.-10 a.m. ("SportsCenter AM") and 6 p.m. editions of the highlights show were up 11% among adults 18-49, while the three-hour morning show got a 12% boost in the adults 25-54 demo when the greatest concentration of sports fans were huffing away on the elliptical or tossing around the ol' medicine ball.

The out-of-home gains come as traditional couch-lock TV ratings continue their inexorable downhill slide. ESPN just wrapped its eleventh season of "Monday Night Football" with an average draw of 11.4 million viewers per game, down 12% versus the year-ago 12.9 million viewers and marking the package's lowest turnout since 2007. All things considered, it could have been a lot worse; seven weeks into the season, in the midst of an unprecedented presidential election cycle, "Monday Night Football" deliveries were down 22% year-over-year. (Also not helping matters was the slate of lousy games over which ESPN presided. At the seven-week mark, the average margin of victory in the Monday night NFL contests was 17.1 points, up a touchdown and PAT compared to the year-ago 9.86-point spread.)

That ESPN is at long last getting credit for the millions of out-of-home viewers that for years were effectively invisible to Nielsen (and by extension, advertisers) marks an inflection point for purveyors of sports TV. Once additional ad buyers and clients get on board the out-of-home train -- ESPN has signed on a multi-agency holding company and a number of smaller indie shops -- those OOH credits could go a long way toward neutralizing the sort of linear ratings declines to which even sports is no longer entirely impervious.

The next big test of the out-of-home measurement scheme comes this weekend, as New Year's Eve revelers keep one eye on the clock and the other on ESPN's coverage of the College Football Playoff games. The festivities get underway when the Chick fil-A Peach Bowl (Alabama-Washington) kicks off Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m. EST; that play-in contest will be followed by the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl (Clemson-Ohio State) at 7 p.m.