Don’t believe the hype on Yahoo’s NFL ‘ratings’

Yahoo this morning trumpeted that there were 33.6 million streams yesterday of its semi-exclusive broadcast of the Buffalo Bills vs. Jacksonville Jaguars. It was the first time the NFL had ever given the rights to one of its games to an online platform. And, not surprisingly, plenty of football scribes bought into the Yahoo spin, going so far as to equate streams with television viewers.

Except they aren’t. And they weren’t.

For starters, Yahoo (YHOO) itself acknowledges that the 33.6 million streams only represented 15.2 million unique viewers. Moreover, all of those streams accounted for a total of 460 million total minutes of football. Were you to put this in television terms, that would imply viewership just south of 2.4 million — a far cry from typical broadcast television viewership for an NFL game (even though, in fairness, the tilt was being broadcast via conventional means in the home markets of Buffalo and Jacksonville, where NFL games traditionally get their best viewship).

More importantly, it would suggest that the typical streamer only watched the 3.25-hour game for around 30 minutes. And given that it was a surprisingly competitive contest that went down to wire, it’s hard to imagine too many football fans chose to stream in for a half-hour and then turned it off.

In short, Yahoo is counting lots of “viewers” who probably can’t distinguish between a first down and a touchdown. The tech company chose to put “auto play” video of the game atop of many of its properties, including its homepage, fantasy sports sites and Tumblr. So anyone who visited one of those pages during that 3.25-hour window counts.

For example, my mother-in-law has never watched an NFL game in her life. But she does use as her personal homepage, so she would have been a “unique viewer.” It would be as if CBS struck a deal with television manufacturers whereby every TV automatically tuned to CBS after being turned on, and then transmitted that “viewership” data to rating houses like Nielsen.

Yahoo estimates that a whopping 43 million people visit its homepage each day, while Quantcast reports that Tumblr is just shy of 1 million per day. If you make (admittedly big) assumptions about those visitors being evenly spread out throughout the day (and week), it would imply more than one-third of Yahoo’s unique viewers weren’t tuning in to watch the game at all. And that doesn’t include visitors to things like Yahoo’s fantasy sports pages, which spike on Sundays.

To be sure, the NFL is going to view this as a success because Yahoo’s streaming technology largely worked. And Yahoo seems to have easily satisfied its promises to advertisers about serving 3.5 million streams.

But let’s not pretend — as Yahoo and its stenographers have done — that this rivaled the most-watched regular season games in NFL history. It was what we thought it would be: A low-interest affair that was ignored by most football fans.

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