Answering 11 burning questions about LIV Golf’s TV ratings vs. the PGA Tour

What to make of LIV's TV ratings?

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If you’ve followed the first few weeks of the 2023 LIV Golf season, you may have realized that objectivity and television ratings go together like toothpaste and orange juice.

There is no lack of data, but different ways of calculating, interpreting and sharing that data can obscure the simpler picture of what it all means. As it relates to the ongoing PGA Tour/LIV Golf TV ratings battle, this is extra true.

On Monday, some outlets reported that LIV’s second tournament in Tucson, Ariz. drew 279,000 average viewers on the CW. This data came from Nielsen and showed LIV’s audience struggling to reach even the thresholds set by the league’s first broadcast in Mayakoba.

But on Friday, for the second time in as many events, LIV released data that ran somewhat counter to Nielsen’s. LIV’s data showed its broadcasts drew some 407,000 viewers. Yes, that marked a drop of some 130,000 average viewers next to week 1 (537,000), but it also showed markedly higher viewership than was reported over the weekend and the early week.

At this point, it’s fairly reasonable that you, like me, have a ton of questions. Why are we getting two sets of data from every tournament? Why aren’t we getting data from LIV’s broadcasts as quickly as we are from the PGA Tour’s broadcasts? What’s reliable? And, of course, how on earth do we make sense of all of this?

Let’s do our best to answer those questions.

Seriously, how do LIV and the PGA Tour’s ratings compare?

Based on data released by both tours and conversations with TV stakeholders, it’s fair to assume that LIV has had an average audience size of 473,000, plus a streaming bump of a few thousand viewers, so far in 2023. In its weekend PGA Tour timeslots adjacent to LIV events — the mid-level Honda Classic and Valspar Championship — NBC has had an average audience of 2.325 million viewers. (Average audience size is the traditional methodology for TV audience metrics, and is a measure of the average number of viewers in any one minute of a tournament broadcast.)

For those hoping for an apples-to-apples conversion between the two tours in their respective national broadcast windows, some combination of Nielsen numbers and LIV’s provided numbers is as close as it gets. We’ll get more in the weeds, but regardless the big picture is the same: so far, the PGA Tour is winning big. The old guard has a marked territorial advantage.

Why is LIV’s data so much different than Nielsen’s?

LIV execs are quick to point out that Nielsen ratings — the ones that have been dropping overnight and in the days following LIV broadcasts — don’t provide a full picture of the LIV audience size. Are they right? It’s complicated.

Not every CW station is carrying LIV events, which means Nielsen’s CW ratings actually include LIV and non-LIV viewership. This is because Nielsen tracks audience size by network only. The data they’ve released is a measure of everyone watching the CW, in all the television markets in the U.S., during the hours LIV is on the air. This includes the group of CW affiliate stations that have withheld from broadcasting LIV events throughout the United States because those affiliates are owned by CBS (a broadcast partner of the PGA Tour). The group of non-LIV CW affiliates makes up some 23 percent of TV markets around the U.S., including some stations located in major markets, like Philadelphia and Chicago.

Until we have market-specific data from LIV or Nielsen, it’s impossible to know how much the non-CW audience is affecting LIV’s viewership. So just as it’s possible that Nielsen is underreporting LIV’s audience (as LIV contests), it’s also possible that 279,000 Nielsen number may actually be too high for the total number of people watching LIV on the CW.

As you can see, the math gets tricky fast.

LIV is adamant that viewers in all U.S. markets can find its broadcasts on linear TV — just not always on the CW. In the markets in which CW stations balked from broadcasting LIV, LIV has agreements with other (typically less prominent) networks to show golf coverage. In Nielsen’s average audience number reported by some outlets earlier this week, viewership numbers from non-CW networks aren’t being reflected.

In the simplest possible terms, LIV feels as though Nielsen data is only telling 68 percent of the story — the 68 percent of that audience size who watched LIV on the CW. The remaining audiences on non-CW affiliates are left out, which means some of the numbers from Nielsen could be underreported.

We just don’t know how many additional viewers are coming into LIV’s viewership from non-CW affiliates, if their reported ratings increases are driven primarily by iSpot’s metrics (more on that next), or some combination of both.

This much remains obvious: for LIV, every viewer counts.

Why is it taking so long to receive audience data from LIV?

LIV is utilizing a company called iSpotTV — a Nielsen competitor — to collect its audience data. iSpot markets itself on its ability to capture “100 percent” of audience data from a broadcast, encompassing those who watched live, out of home, and later on DVR. Capturing all of that data takes time. A source told GOLF that for the first two broadcasts of the LIV season, LIV didn’t receive its preliminary viewership from iSpot until Wednesday evening, and didn’t receive final viewership until later on Thursday at earliest.

This delay is bad for transparency and also puts LIV at a major disadvantage in public opinion, particularly as Nielsen reports data days in advance.

“That’s just the schedule of iSpot’s collection of our viewership data,” LIV chief media officer Will Staeger said. “We’ll put out the numbers when we have them.”

How is LIV reporting more than a million viewers?

LIV has been spotlighting audience sizes using a metric called “total reach,” which measures the total number of people who watch one minute of a given broadcast. This number is unreliable in comparison to PGA Tour ratings, which rely on the industry standard practice of reporting the average viewership of a broadcast. (LIV has also begun reporting average viewership, though its numbers encompass all 10 hours of live weekend coverage as opposed to the traditional practice of reporting daily averages.)

Think of it this way: the average number of people eating a pimento cheese sandwich at any minute during Masters week might be 500, but the total number of people to spend at least one minute eating a pimento cheese sandwich during Masters week is very likely in the tens of thousands. It wouldn’t be fair to compare those two numbers as equals. This central discrepancy is to blame for a lot of the confusion we’ve seen between the PGA Tour and LIV as it relates to TV data.

Are Nielsen’s numbers inaccurate?

Nielsen is accurately reporting the audience sizes watching the CW during the hours of LIV’s broadcasts. But it isn’t reporting the audience size of only those watching LIV’s broadcast, and not other CW programming. For that, you would need data from LIV’s non-CW affiliates — data Nielsen isn’t being paid to collect.

Can we trust Nielsen?

For the PGA Tour’s viewership data, yes, Nielsen is still the industry standard. But given the complexity of LIV’s broadcast situation, it’s tough to lean 100 percent on Nielsen’s CW/LIV ratings until we have a clearer picture of what’s being reported.

Can we trust LIV’s data?

For the most part, yes. We can trust that the quality of the data collected from iSpot.

It’s harder to know how iSpot’s average audience data compares directly to Nielsen’s, which means it’s difficult to say with 100 percent certainty that the numbers are an exact comparison. Think of Nielsen as a delicious Honeycrisp apple, while iSpot is a crunchy Granny Smith — yes, they’re slightly different, but we’re still comparing apples. (LIV’s total reach data, on the other hand, is virtually useless as a point of comparison.)

Why are LIV’s numbers so different on Nielsen and iSpot?

The discrepancy between the numbers coming from Nielsen and those coming from iSpot has a few different causes. One theory is that iSpot’s measurements capture a larger number of non-traditional TV watchers (out-of-home restaurant and bar viewers, those watching on DVR). Another is that LIV’s broadcasts are carrying significant audiences in non-CW markets, and those audiences are going uncounted by Nielsen. It’s possible that both theories are contributing to iSpot’s higher numbers in some way.

Why won’t LIV release Nielsen data?

It isn’t clear why LIV chose to partner with iSpot rather than Nielsen, though we can surmise it has something to do with iSpot’s viewership data, which some advertisers prefer for its ability to capture a “fuller picture” of audience data.

“The way iSpot measures, it measures set-top devices, connected TV devices, out-of-home bars and restaurants, video players and so forth,” Staeger said. “So that’s also why there’s a difference in some of the numbers. [People watching in those settings] are viewers and it’s beholden on us to make sure we measure who’s watching.”

Is the data we’ve gotten *good* for LIV?

It’s all relative. The upstarts were hoping for a big start to their television contract on the CW, but it’s hard to know exactly what that meant. Considering the CW has no other sports properties, it’s not like we can compare LIV ratings to other comparable leagues on the CW. And considering LIV has only been in existence for a year, it’s fair to wonder if LIV even knows what success would even look like.

In conversations with both sides, one thing seems clear: public recognition remains a bigger problem than we realize, both in terms of viewer interest in the league and in viewer knowledge of the league’s broadcasts. (That would explain why the league retained the services of renowned advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy for 2023.)

Still, it’s fair to wonder if these viewership numbers represent good news to LIV leadership. Yes, as LIV execs caution, it’s still plenty early. But after spending billions getting the league off the ground and recruiting some of golf’s most entertaining talent, LIV’s foothold with golf fans remains close to 20 percent the size of the PGA Tour.

Is the data we’ve gotten *good* for the PGA Tour?

For the most part, yes. The Tour doesn’t seem to have lost any ratings steam in the early part of 2023, even given concerns over its new designated event structure. Whatever the measurements, its lead over the rivals remains sizable.

There are a million ways to spin LIV’s broadcast ratings in large part because so little prior data exists. Any positive trends show LIV gaining on the opposition; any negative ones show LIV at a “growth point.” The Tour, on the other hand, has 30+ years of television ratings data for viewers to rely on, and far less wiggle room to tell a compelling story. It’s well-accustomed to being the top dog in the golf world. Through the early portion of the season, that remains true. For the establishment, no news is good news.

Of course, there’s still plenty of time for that to change as the season progresses, but it’s never a bad thing to be the runaway leader in the clubhouse.

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