One of my favorite lists around the turning of the calendar is Paulsen’s list at Sports Media Watch of the Most Watched Sporting Events of the year. It’s always a fantastic look in context at how many people watched the biggest sporting events in the previous 12 months and offers some illuminating information.
This year, with NFL ratings falling during the 2016 season leading to a lot of headlines, one might have thought that the NFL would suffer a bit on this list. That’s certainly not the case. Even a down year from the NFL on the television front dominates the rest of the competition.
The only thing that can really keep pace with the NFL are the Olympics and the two titans of sports television paced the field in 2016. Among the Top 50 sporting events, the NFL had 33 and the Olympics 12, which means every other sport contributed just 5 events to the list.
Those games were Games 5-7 of the World Series, Game 7 of the NBA Finals, and the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
Here’s the full Top 10:
1) Super Bowl L – 111.86m
2) AFC Championship – 53.3m
3) NFC Championship – 45.7m
4) AFC Divisional Playoff (Pit-Den) – 42.9m
5) Game 7 World Series (CHC-Cle) – 40.0m
6) NFC Wild Card (GB-Was) – 38.8m
7) NFC Divisional Playoff (Sea-Car) – 36.7m
8) NFC Wild Card (Sea-Min) – 35.3m
9) NFL Thanksgiving Day (Dal-Was) – 35.1m
10) NFC Divisional Playoff (GB-Ari) – 33.7m
The top Olympic event came in 11th place with primetime coverage from Rio averaging 33.4 million viewers on night four of the games. Game 7 of the NBA Finals came in at 15th on the list with 31.0 million viewers. Both the baseball and the basketball finales were recent records for each sport with Cubs-Indians being the most watched baseball game since 1991 and Cavs-Warriors the most watched since the Jordan Era in 1998.
One interesting footnote to the list – the lowest rated NFL Playoff game was of course the early Saturday afternoon Wild Card game on ESPN/ABC. Last year that was Chiefs-Texans and it drew 25.4 million viewers. (The fact that this year’s matchup is Texans-Raiders with potentially backup quarterbacks playing for both teams is not being celebrated in Bristol right now.) That game was beat out in the ratings by six games from the NFL regular season. Five of them involved the Cowboys and the other was the Vikings-Lions Thanksgiving Day game. The NFL should be thanking their lucky stars that Dallas has been so good this year or else who knows where the NFL’s regular season ratings would have been. Thanks to Dallas, it wasn’t all bad news for the NFL during the regular season. The Cowboys-Redskins Thanksgiving Day game drew 35.1 million viewers, the most watched regular season game since 1995.
While you’re digging through numbers, it’s also worth checking out the rankings without the NFL and Olympics and the rankings by sport and network. Of note, almost every major sports network outside ESPN set a viewership record in the last year including FS1, NBCSN, NFL Network, MLB Network, and NBA TV. Perhaps it’s a small sign that the monopoly ESPN has had on major sports rights packages is loosening ever so slightly and a sign that amidst all the hysteria about cable TV’s future, live sports still maintain an incredible amount of value.