The BYU basketball team did a fine job salvaging what had been a disappointing season up through its conference tournament by making a run to New York for the National Invitation Tournament’s version of the final four.
The Cougars lost a hard-fought rematch against Baylor at Madison Square Garden in a game that aired on ESPN2, pushed to the sister network in favor of a Women’s NCAA Elite 8 game between Notre Dame and Duke.
That contest between the Cougars and Bears on "the Deuce" was seen in close to half-a-million households, which is 44 percent more viewers than other NIT games on ESPN2 this season.
The problem is, games on ESPN proper – the Mothership – average nearly triple the views.
ESPN2 and ESPN are not equal
Across the sports landscape, games aired on ESPN will nearly always pull higher ratings than they would on ESPN2.
I wrote earlier this week about how BYU benefits from Friday night games, primarily because they always air on The Mothership and not its little sister.
In football, BYU games on ESPN average about 1.7 million households viewing, while games on ESPN2 don’t even get 1 million. It’s not about the matchup – even taking out an ESPN2 game against Idaho doesn’t get the secondary network viewer numbers even close in BYU’s case.
It’s the same for basketball. A first round NIT game between BYU and Washington drew far more viewers than both the Iowa v. Maryland and Baylor v. BYU semifinal games that aired on ESPN2.
It’s not just ESPN2 that’s inferior in terms of exposure. Those NCAA Tournament games on TNT, TBS and TruTV don’t garner near the ratings that matchups on ESPN would.
Ratings numbers provided by Nielsen
So why women?
This begs the question: Why would ESPN choose to air an inferior product like a quarterfinal women’s basketball game on the flagship network while relegating a men’s semifinal matchup between two good teams to a sister network?
Can it really drive higher ratings than an NIT semifinal?
The answer is probably no. Nielsen told us the ratings information isn’t accurate and advised us to reach out to ESPN for the numbers. I'm not sure why the women’s game can’t get accurate ratings like any other game, but it’s puzzling and even suspicious to say the least.
SportsMediaWatch.com posted that the Notre Dame v. Duke women’s game drew 1.2 million households – about the same number as the WCC Conference Men’s Tournament final. A men’s NCAA quarterfinal game gets about 10 million households on average. No question, men’s college basketball has dramatically wider interest than women’s.
The reason ESPN is putting women’s basketball in prime position, despite the fact it likely costs the network in the ratings is simple: It's trying to build a new brand.
Men’s basketball fans find it annoying. Others find it insulting ESPN is shoving a product down sportsdom’s throat and expecting us to swallow it.
The fact is live sports are the last of the valuable inventory for TV advertising revenue. It’s why college football TV deals are billion-dollar Goliaths. It’s why the National Football League is uber-rich.
In the day of DVRs and on-demand programming, live eyeballs are at a premium. If ESPN can add another arrow in its live-programming quiver by building an audience for a women’s sport, it finds valuable advertising dollars.
In this instance, the building of the women’s hoops audience came at the expense of exposure for BYU and Baylor, in a game that would (and maybe should) have been on ESPN but was relegated to second-class.
While BYU has no control over programming decisions for basketball tournaments aired on ESPN, the issue does illuminate the fact that Tom Holmoe and co. ought to make sure as many games as possible—both basketball and football—get on The Mothership. Outside of network television, if you’re not on ESPN, you’re not on.