For those in the business of sports television ratings, there is only one job: spin.
Generally speaking, TV viewership data is both a) complicated and b) devoid of context, which makes it uniquely c) susceptible to heavy manipulation at the hands of those disseminating the information.
Networks almost never experience true victory laps — in which ratings rise beyond even the wildest dreams of their most exuberant executive — but networks almost always make it appear as though that is the case. Great network executives are like illusionists, capable of hiding mistakes and misgivings in their data in plain sight.
If you’re a regular reader of the Hot Mic, perhaps you’ve noticed we don’t spend much time discussing ratings. This is because we, like you, don’t enjoy trading in half-truths (and maybe also a little bit because we are very bad at math). But this week, LIV’s broadcast debut on the CW has placed TV ratings talk front and center in the golf world, so we are going to take a moment to give our best no-spin interpretation of what’s actually going on.
What are sports TV ratings?
Ratings are a measure of how many people watched a program. They are the metrics advertisers use to decide how much the advertisements that run alongside the program (and by extension, pay for its existence) are worth.
Ratings are collected via a few key metrics, but for the purposes of this story, you only need to know two: “average audience” and “total reach.”
Average audience is the average number of viewers in one minute of a broadcast. This is the typical number you see when you see an audience number associated with a sports broadcast. Some networks will offer average audience on an hour-by-hour basis.
Total reach is the total number of people who watched a broadcast for at least one minute. This number is not often used as a measure of audience size when it relates to sports broadcasts (though you will sometimes hear it in relation to the Super Bowl).
Where are the numbers coming from?
It depends on who you ask. Right now, most of the media world depends on ratings from the folks at an analytics company named Nielsen. But Nielsen has come under fire in recent years for failing to adapt quickly enough to the streaming world, which has led to the rise of alternative audience-recording companies like iSpotTV, which LIV is utilizing for its data.
iSpotTV is fairly popular in major media. It was even used by NBC over Nielsen for some of NBC’s most important advertiser-facing work in 2022. As best we can tell, iSpotTV and Nielsen have proven relatively comparable when it comes to measuring audiences.
On Sunday, LIV completed its first-ever tournament on broadcast television, which meant that on Monday the first set of ratings concretely comparing LIV’s TV product to the PGA Tour’s emerged into the world.
What did the numbers say?
It depends on who you ask. Per a Monday Sports Business Journal report citing Nielsen data, LIV had an average audience of some 291,000 viewers during Sunday’s final-round broadcast. More data from ESPN and outlets like Sports Media Watch reinforced SBJ’s original reporting. Put up against the PGA Tour, which had an average audience of 2.42 million for the relatively low-key Honda Classic on Sunday, that qualifies as … not great.
But on Friday morning, LIV released a report of its own that claimed it received “more than 1.3 million total linear viewers” during Sunday’s final round and “more than 3.2 million total viewers” for the weekend, seemingly contradicting SBJ’s earlier report.
(It should be noted that LIV’s ratings — in either the SBJ’s or its own measurement — reflect only the league’s audience on linear TV, while NBC’s average audience includes linear TV and Peacock streaming. LIV said it received 350,000 streaming views between Friday, Saturday and Sunday’s broadcast windows. We don’t believe that removing or adding streaming data would precipitously change either network’s average audience.)
Why were the two ratings so different?
As far as we can tell, LIV’s data utilized what one might call “trick arithmetic.” Rather than report the “average audience,” the traditional metric in sports TV ratings, LIV reported its “total reach.”
By reporting its “total reach,” LIV provided a metric that made its audience sound larger next to other sports TV ratings. Should the Tour report its own “total reach” metric, it likely would outnumber LIV’s proportionally to the two entities’ average audiences. It’s believed the total reach for an average Tour broadcast is around 15 million, though we don’t have official data from the Tour from last weekend’s Honda Classic.
Is this bad?
Only if you wanted to compare the two products objectively … which I suppose you probably do if you’ve gone through the effort of finding their TV ratings.
In all seriousness, ratings spin is fairly standard fare, even if this represents an aggressive case of that.
What does the numbers *actually* mean?
They mean, for one thing, that the PGA Tour remained the dominant television product during LIV’s first broadcast of the year. They also mean that things are poised to stay this way for the immediate future, though that probably doesn’t come as a surprise.
LIV’s ratings gains over the next several weeks will be worth watching closely, particularly considering the importance of getting the partnership with the CW out on the right foot. Growth will be key over 2023 as the league seeks to entrench itself with golf audiences and, just as importantly, reap advertising revenues.
The numbers also tell us that Nielsen’s report — which put LIV’s average audience at 289,000 vs. the Tour’s at 2.42 million — is the most objective comparison of the two products we’ll have until we receive the Tour’s total reach data from the Honda Classic.
How do LIV Golf’s TV ratings really compare to the PGA Tour?
It’s only two weeks until we get our next LIV vs. PGA Tour showdown, when the Valspar Championship goes up against LIV Tucson. We’ll get more data from those TV events, too.
And more spin.