ESPN’s Also a Winner

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Storrs, Conn., may be the capital of the college hoops world these days, but executives in nearby Bristol had reason to celebrate as well last week.

ESPN’s presentation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I Women’s Basketball Championship produced record ratings all around, capped by a 4.3 household mark, for the April 6 title game between Connecticut and Tennessee, according to Nielsen Media Research data.

Coverage of the Lady Huskies’ 70-61 triumph last Tuesday night — its third consecutive distaff title, paired with the men’s team’s conquest of Georgia Tech made UConn the first school to ever wear both collegiate basketball crowns in the same year — drew more than 3.8 million households.

That total made it the most-watched game ever — women’s or men’s, college or professional — in ESPN’s 25-year history, according to network officials, leaping past the previous high of 3.49 million households for UConn’s victory over Oklahoma that completed a perfect season in 2002.

UP OVER ’03

The April 6 contest registered increases of 26% and 23% from the 3.01 million homes and 3.5 rating produced by the 2003 title tilt between UConn and Tennessee. Last week’s championship matchup averaged 5.58 million watchers 2-plus, a 28% jump from last year’s 4.37 million. And deep in the heart of Huskies country, the women’s final scored a 36.3 DMA rating in Hartford, Conn.

For those keeping score at home, there also was a host of other records. The Minnesota/UConn semifinal on April 4 scored a 3.5, the highest ever for a women’s semifinal.

The three-game Final Four average was the network’s most-viewed and highest-rated, with some 2.99 million households (16%) and a 3.4 average (13%).

Overall, the women’s tourney was at the top of the class for ESPN and ESPN2 in the aforementioned classifications. ESPN averaged 1.3 million households and a 1.5 rating, 42% and 36% gains versus last year. ESPN2’s coverage increased 77% in households (445,000 vs. 252,000) and 67% in ratings (0.5 from 0.3).

“The 2004 NCAA women’s tournament is a tremendous success story for ESPN and the NCAA,” ESPN senior vice president, programming strategy Len DeLuca said in a statement. “The record audience numbers are a reflection of our plan to capture the storylines in the first week and then provide every game nationally from the Sweet 16 to the Final Four.”

EARLY ROUNDS SCORE

While high-profile matchups and upsets in the latter rounds produced big numbers, early-round contests also pushed the improved Nielsens. ESPN’s first two telecast windows — presenting action across several contests — averaged a 0.7 March 20 and 21, a 133% jump from the corresponding period with the 2003 tourney. For its part, ESPN2’s six first-round windows doubled to a 0.4 mark from the prior year.

ESPN executives attributed the early-round Nielsen amelioration, in part, to better coordination between programming, affiliate sales operations and public relations departments in terms of aligning the four regional feeds with protected viewing territories and mixing in the primary feed as on-court action warranted.

ESPN director of affiliate-sales operations Lillian Urso-Vieira said ESPN expanded the viewing territories as results dictated. For instance, during the first round Baylor played Loyola Marymount, with the market-protect area Baylor encompassing only Waco-Temple, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and Austin, Texas.

Based on viewer response, the market protected for Baylor action was expanded to the entire state of Texas for its second-round win over Florida.

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