Digital Sports Report: Perform Overtakes ESPN In Online Video Viewership, Reaching 24.5M Uniques In November

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Sports is in the process of becoming the next big market to be transformed by the digital revolution, as fans are increasingly turning to mobile devices and second, third and fourth screens to consume sports content. In August, Turner bought sports blogging and content platform Bleacher Report for an estimated $200. More recently, Yahoo and NBC forged a digital sports partnership in the hopes of becoming the largest sports web property in the U.S., and permanently stealing that spot from ESPN.

Naturally, ESPN and Yahoo! perennially rank as the top sports websites in the U.S., and the same is true for digital video — although it’s more true of ESPN. As more and more fans turn to digital video to watch games live or get highlights after the games, the household names tend to pick up a lot of that digital traffic. Over the last year, for example, ESPN has ranked at the top of the list in terms of digital sports video viewership. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for newcomers. In fact, today, it seems there’s a new leader in the digital sports video world, and it’s not ESPN, Yahoo, NFL or CBS.

You may not have heard of Perform Sports, but the sports media company supplanted ESPN in digital video viewership in November — even if just barely — according to comScore’s November rankings. Perform saw 24.5 million unique viewers in November, just outpacing ESPN at 24 million. Yahoo Sports ranked a distant third with 9.9 million.

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This represents the first time that Perform Sports has claimed the top position among digital video providers in the U.S., so it’s a big milestone for the company, which, compared to ESPN and Yahoo is a veritable newcomer to the sports world.

Not only is the company a youngster compared to the 40+ year-old ESPN and the 15-year-old Yahoo Sports — it was founded in 2007 — it’s based in the U.K. That’s right. Nonetheless, the $1 billion, London-based company has grown quickly over the last five years, and now has over 1,000 employees in 22 countries and is listed on the London Stock Exchange.

How has Perform captured the top ranking? The company owns one of the largest portfolios of digital rights in the world. In the U.S., the company provides over 350 publishers, like the L.A. Times, the New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald, USA Today and The New York Times with professional and college sports video highlights and original programming via its syndicated video player, ePlayer — just as ESPN now does with Ooyala.

Unlike the big, branded sports destinations, Perform and the other lesser-know but fast-growing CineSport (which ranked fourth in November) are able to license content from leagues and other content providers, distributing video content particularly to a litany of third party sites. As you can see above, for Perform especially, those partners are primarily publications who are looking to beef up their digital properties.

Perform streams game highlights from the MLB, NBA, PGA, MLS, WTA, Nascar and Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, ACC, Pac-12 under their Total College Sports brand. The content is often geo-targeted (and includes national clips and coverage for big games), placing that content alongside editorial coverage in the sports sections of publisher sites, for example.

The company has also been expanding its focus of late to include original content in its lineup, through Total College Sports, for example, which offers a mix of original programming with an in-studio team. The site is currently producing a new original show that will air Saturday nights on Hulu.

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Above, you can see a comparison of Yahoo Sports, ESPN and Perform beginning in November 2011, running through October 2012. ESPN led the rankings over that time, with Perform seeing some modest gains on the leader. But from October to December, Perform saw a huge boost (of nearly eight million unique viewers), which seems almost unbelievable, but the company tells us can be attributed to a new distribution deal it signed with the NFL in October.

Perform (and CineSport) have also been able to make gains on the household names by becoming video distributors that enable content to be disseminated broadly, across platforms and devices. Like the bigs, Perform can serve content to viewers wherever they happen to be, but unlike other big brands, it doesn’t require them to navigate to their own branded sites or platforms in order to view that content.

Third-party sites are ravenous for quality video content thanks to escalating demand both from fans and advertisers, and Perform has been able to take advantage of that, while making the deal more appetizing to publishers by offering a revenue share of the ad dollars generated by Perform’s video on their platforms.

The economic dynamics around sports video content are changing, and the demand from third-party sites for sports video content is only going to increase. This could mean that there’s a good chance this won’t be the last time that Perform, or CineSport, find themselves atop the sports video rankings.