What’s Bigger: The World Cup or March Madness?

Updated: The World Cup has prompted a record number of users to tune in online and follow the tournament via live streams — or has it? ESPN claimed the other day that the online audience for the game between the U.S. and Algeria was unprecedented, with 1.1 million viewers watching the game in real time on ESPN3. ESPN’s press release read, in part:

“The U.S. vs. Algeria game marked a milestone for online video, logging the largest U.S. audience ever for a sports event on the web.”

Not so fast, was the response from CBS today. CBS has been hugely successful with its March Madness on Demand franchise, and the network is now saying that ESPN simply looked at the wrong numbers when it compared the basketball tournament with the World Cup.

Granted, the final March Madness on Demand face-off between Duke and Butler attracted only about half of Wednesday’s ESPN3 soccer audience, but the Florida vs. BYU game was actually watched by 1,115,097 viewers. That’s about 15,000 more than the U.S. team’s 91st minute miracle.

Here’s some data listing World Cup and March Madness online audiences, as provided by CBS:

Meanwhile, others are also claiming their own records. Yahoo said today that its World Cup site clocked more than 7.9 million unique visitors from June 7 through June 13, which made it the most popular soccer site during that time period. And Univision told us that it is actually outperforming ESPN3 online relative to the size of the two networks’ broadcast audiences. The network also said that it saw 700,000 hours of live streaming on day 12 of the World Cup alone.

Update: ESPN3’s senior director of research, Dave Coletti, just told me that his company doesn’t agree with CBS. “They’re not comparing apples to apples,” he said. The original claim of largest online audience was based on the average audience, which takes into account both the number of viewers and the time they spent watching.

ESPN3’s average audience during the game in question was 320,000, which Coletti said he was confident represented “substantially more viewers than any other sports event.”  ESPN3 would even win by uniques if it also counted its three foreign language feeds of the game, he added. In the end, he told me, fighting over a few thousand viewers isn’t productive, but the issue shows how important accurate measurement of live events online is. ESPN3 has long been favoring to use average audience sizes for this, which is common in the world of TV measurement.

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