Freelance journalist Larry Hamel is a former Sunday sports editor for the Chicago Sun-Times and founder and coach of the Gold Coast Spikers beach-volleyball training program. Hamel lives in Chicago and plays both indoor and beach volleyball.
By Larry Hamel for VolleyballMag.com
The Nielsen ratings for the NCAA women’s indoor volleyball championship match in 2021 provided the sport a welcome dose of holiday cheer.
Its cheeks weren’t quite so rosy this December.
Seven-figure overall viewership on ESPN2 and a rating that translated to 435,000 viewers in the 18-49 demographic, the group most coveted by advertisers, were causes for rejoicing in the halls of ESPN and for college-volleyball fans a year ago, particularly when those numbers demonstrated significant audience growth during the era of cord-cutting on cable TV. ESPN’s PR machine out of Bristol, Connecticut, flooded social media with a graphic that trumeted the “the most viewed college volleyball game ever on ESPN networks.”
However, that ratings bonanza, while not nearly fool’s gold, proved to be an anomaly, what is known as an outlier in statistical lingo. The NCAA final this past Saturday night on ESPN2 backtracked to 786,000 total-average viewers in a 2-hour, 5-minute telecast, a 33.8% drop from the 1,188,000 who tuned on December 18, 2021, when Wisconsin defeated Big Ten rival Nebraska in a five-set, 3-hour, 35-minute thriller.
Won in a sweep by Texas over Louisville, the title match on Saturday, December 17, finished 15th on the day on the widely referenced Showbuzz cable TV chart (see below) with a .22 rating (translating to 286,000 viewers) in the 18-49 demographic, a 33.3% drop from the .33 rating it posted last year, when it ranked sixth. The match in Omaha, Nebraska, on Saturday night drew a sell-out crowd of 16,952 to the CHI Health Center.
Despite hefty drops in total eyeballs and in the all-important ad “impressions” in the key demo, the ratings news wasn’t all negative for women’s college volleyball. Perhaps the most positive aspect was that the final drew a slightly higher rating among females (.22) in 18-49 demographic than males (.21), which is virtually unheard of in sports programming and likely to be noticed by advertisers.
The 786k/.22 numbers, posted while airing opposite the third game of an NFL triple-header on NFL Network (Bills-Dolphins, viewed by more than 11 million) and college football bowl games on ESPN, also represented significant improvements in year-to-year ratings when compared to what the NCAA finals logged in the spring of 2021 (pushed back because of the COVID pandemic) and in its traditional December spot in 2019.
The final on April 24, 2020, won by Kentucky over Texas, drew 696,000 viewers and an 18-49 rating of .20 on ESPN2 with no NFL competition. On December 21, 2019, Stanford’s victory over Wisconsin on ESPN2 did 533,000/.14 airing against an NFL game.
What arguably separated 2021 from 2022 in the ratings was that last year’s women’s final was able to lure far more viewers who had tuned into the semifinals on Thursday night. Wisconsin-Nebraska generated 388,000 more viewers than the most-watched ’21 semifinal. This year, the title tussle had 50,000 more total-average viewers than the most-watched Final 4 match two nights earlier. Demos in the ’22 final held up fairly well in the 18-49 female group (.22 in ’22 vs. .29 in ’22), but showed steep declines among 18-49 males (.21 vs. .37) and in the 50+ group (.36 vs. .57).
Despite that, the 2022 women’s volleyball final was watched by more viewers and scored higher in the 18-49 demo than any men’s regular-season college basketball game that aired on cable TV during the same week. It more than doubled the most-watched women’s college hoops game, which was shown on broadcast ABC.
More positives came with the final-four matches aired on ESPN, which finished 1-2 on the Showbuzz cable chart for Thursday. The late match, won by Louisville over Pittsburgh in five sets, scored slightly higher in the demo (.22 to .21) but was watched by 44,000 fewer total-average viewers (736k to 692k) than the opener, in which the eventual champion Longhorns bounced San Diego in four.
In 2021, the NCAA semifinals on ESPN finished sixth and 12th on the Showbuzz cable chart for December 16. The first match Thursday logged a .24 in 18-49 and had 800,000 viewers, and the nightcap did 636k/.18. The context that should be noted is that in 2021, the Thursday night NFL game still was being aired on broadcast Fox and cable NFL Network, and NFL-related shows were 1-through-4 on the Showbuzz cable chart.
The Thursday NFL game this year was on the streaming Amazon Prime platform and was listed by Showbuzz on the broadcast table (with 10.3 million viewers and an 18-49 rating of 2.88). Both ’22 semifinals scored high with female viewers, which shouldn’t be a surprise since volleyball is the No. 1 participant indoor sport for high-school girls. The demo rating among 12-34 females, in particular, rose from .10 and .09 in 2021 to .15 and .12, respectively.
In fact, the three highest-ranked shows on cable TV in the 12-34 female demo on Thursday were the two NCAA volleyball matches and the studio show on ESPN that ran between the semifinals. Also significant is that the higher-rated match in the 18-48 demo was the nightcap, which did not sign off until 12:26 a.m. Eastern and matched Louisville and Pitt, both from the Eastern time zone. What’s more, none of the four teams involved are based in huge media markets: Pittsburgh 26th nationally, San Diego 27th, Austin 38th and Louisville 49th.
Another overall positive: ESPN expanded its coverage of the 2022 NCAA tournament to include all eight of the round-of-16 matches, two on ESPN2 and the remainder on the ESPNU platform. Selected regional semifinals had aired in previous years.
Ratings alone can only tell us that fewer watched the NCAA semifinals and final this year than last, not why that might have occurred. But a few educated extrapolations can be floated:
1) The 2021 finalists, Wisconsin and Nebraska, enjoy huge and intensely loyal fan bases and had spillover interest from viewers across the Big Ten;
2) As noted, the home markets of the ’22 finalists aren’t all that large;
3) The three-set match, with a lopsided second set, between Texas and Louisville was about 90 minutes shorter than the five-setter in ‘21, which likely held fewer viewers and gave channel surfers less time to find it;
4) Casual fans might have been more aware of volleyball because of the USA women’s indoor team’s gold-medal-winning performance in the Toyko Summer Olympics;
5) The NFL game that ran against the ’22 final (Bills-Dolphins) was of wider general interest and more competitive than the lone NFL contest on the slate in ’21 (Colts-Patriots), and thus was watched by 3.79 million more viewers.
Last, but not least, the changing landscape of cable TV should be factored into any ratings conversation. The penetration of cable TV in American homes declined 31% from the third quarter of 2018 to the third quarter of 2022, even as the number of TV households increased from 119.6 million to 123.8 million. ESPN2, for example, is available to 7% fewer households now than it was at the start of 2022, 74,215 million in total.
The 2018 NCAA final (won by Stanford over Nebraska) was watched by 968,000 total-average viewers on ESPN2. The 786,000 that tuned into Texas-Louisville on ESPN2 represented an 18% erosion from ’18, a more-than-acceptable decline in these cord-cutting times.