Score: Out-of-Home Viewing Boosts ESPN's Ratings Outlook

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ESPN's out-of-home audience continues to give the network a not-insignificant ratings boost, as viewing in bars, restaurants, gyms, hotels and other public venues over the last several months have added millions of heretofore unaccounted-for deliveries.

While the out-of-home gains look to help recapture some of the industry-wide declines in traditional couch-lock TV ratings, moreover, they may also prove to make up for a good deal of the losses of younger viewers that are increasingly difficult to reach. According to Nielsen, OOH viewing has provide to bolster ESPN's adults 18-to-24 audience by 9% and ESPN2's by 7%, while 31% of all deliveries of adults 18-to-34 across both networks can be traced back to viewers who have slipped the bounds of their sofas.

According to Nielsen, ESPN last year notched its biggest out-of-home lift on Jan. 1, when its coverage of the Rose Bowl matchup between Stanford and Iowa drew an additional 1.15 million viewers who watched the game outside the friendly confines of their own dens and living rooms. The OOH deliveries marked a 9% lift compared to the broadcast's standard C3 rating, bringing the game's total audience to nearly 15 million viewers.

While ESPN wasn't able to make money from all those additional New Year's Day eyeballs -- the network wouldn't begin making ratings guarantees against OOH viewing until after its 2016-17 upfront presentation -- the Rose Bowl gains went a long way toward demonstrating the impact of non-traditional TV consumption. In September, ESPN and a major media agency holding company told Ad Age that they had agreed to negotiate TV deals that included OOH deliveries, a first for the industry.

Other big OOH draws included the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game, the Fiesta Bowl, Game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals and last season's first "Monday Night Football" broadcast. On a percentage basis, the biggest OOH shift came courtesy of the showdown between France-Portugal in the UEFA Euro final. Portugal's 1-0 victory in extra time was seen by just under 590,000 soccer enthusiasts in OOH venues, which accounted for a 16% boost in the game's C3 deliveries.

Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN global sales and marketing, said the sports giant has taken on additional OOH converts since it locked in that first big agency group last year. (In exchange for getting the first jump on the OOH story, Advertising Age has agreed to withhold the identity of the holding company until further notice.) "We helped create a knowledge base for the industry to evaluate out-of-home, and we feel really good about where we are now," Mr. Erhardt said. "There has been so much noise about accuracy and transparency, and we feel that what is being measured is exactly what you need right now in a world of unknown, and somewhat shady, activity by some players in the market. This is measurement that people see has real merit."

All told, ESPN's 10 biggest OOH draws in 2016 contributed an additional 7.69 million viewers that would have gone unrecognized at any other network. That said, while ESPN was the first network to transact against taproom and health club viewers, its exclusivity is about to come to an end as Nielsen preps the April introduction of its National Out-of-Home Reporting Service.

Under the new service, OOH viewing will be culled from Nielsen's sample of 75,000 Portable People Meter panelists across the top 44 local DMAs. The ratings giant will use information from those panelists to project OOH deliveries in 65% of the country.

The OOH panel includes such top DMAs as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco and Boston, but also represents several key college markets. These include Charlotte (UNC), Austin (University of Texas), Columbus (Ohio State) and Raleigh (North Carolina State). Among the big college sports towns that just missed the cut are Tuscaloosa (University of Alabama) and Louisville.

According to ESPN, 24% of its OOH deliveries take place in bars or restaurants, making these venues the most popular places for sports fans to watch their teams outside their own homes. Other people's homes (16%), the gym (12%) and hotel rooms (9%) also account for a good chunk of OOH viewing.

The biggest days of the week for OOH viewing are Thirsty Thursdays and weekends. Last year, ESPN's total-day audience increased 6% when including OOH, while the spinoff net saw a 4% increase.

Live sports coverage aside, ESPN has 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. ("The Six") editions of the show were up 11% among adults 18-to-49, while the three-hour morning show got a 12% boost in the adults 25-to-54 demo when the greatest concentration of sports fans were huffing away on the elliptical or tossing around the ol' medicine ball.

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