2017 saw our nation’s three major sports leagues — NBA, NFL, and MLB — become the top ratings focus on television. A major sport of generations ago (boxing) sparked a slightly increase of interest on cable. And the female sides of tennis and golf resulted in solid showings for their respective events. Here are the top eleven sports ratings moments of the year:
- New York (and New York Alone) Loves ‘Mike and the Mad Dog’
Months prior to Mike Francesa’s departure from New York’s sports radio station WFAN after 30 years there, ESPN debuted the documentary “30 for 30: Mike and the Mad Dog”. While its original telecast on July 13 drew minimal national interest with a mere 657,000 viewers, the New York TV market — from where the “Mike and the Mad Dog” radio show had originated — posted a 2.5 local rating, which is the market’s top-rated 30 for 30/ESPN Films/Nine for IX premiere ever. The previous New York record was for “You Don’t Know Bo” on Dec. 8 2012 (2.1 local rating). ‘Mike and the Mad Dog’ was also the most New York-skewed ’30 for 30′, surpassing the “Big Shot” documentary from 2013 about the infamous John Spano scandal that rocked the NHL and the New York Islanders in the mid-90’s.
- U.S. NHL Viewers Actually Didn’t Mind Canada in the Playoffs
Against previous perceptions, the increased presence of Canadian teams in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs did not negatively affect its American viewership. NBC Sports’ coverage on TV and streaming mediums averaged 1.4 million viewers, up 11 percent from last year. The total audience delivery of the six-game Pittsburgh Penguins-Nashville Predators Stanley Cup Final on NBC, NBCSN and streaming averaged 4.8 million viewers, the best-ever for a non-Original Six SCF.
- Solid Results for Various Women’s Golf Events
While there were not many notable ratings positives for men’s golf in 2017, several women’s tournaments experienced multi-year highs on TV. The final round of the year’s first major, the ANA Inspiration (formerly known as the Dinah Shore) in April, that featured the controversial four-stroke penalty against once-tournament leader Lexi Thompson, averaged 551,000 viewers on Golf Channel — double-digit gains from each of the final rounds in 2015 and 2016. Final round coverage of the Women’s PGA Championship (formerly known as the LPGA Championship) on NBC from July drew 840,000 viewers — a 12-year best for the tournament. I.K. Kim‘s victory in the Women’s British Open on NBC in August registered 1.1 million viewers for its final round — a tournament-best figure since 2006. And, an average of 968,000 viewers tuned in to NBC’s Aug. 19 telecast of the Solheim Cup, at least a decade-high mark for the tournament as the event made its return to broadcast network television after 15 years solely on cable. Golf Channel aired the Solheim Cup’s final round early on Aug. 20 and posted 795,000 viewers — the largest cable audience for a women’s golf telecast in eight years.
- American Pride at U.S. Open
The all-American women’s semifinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament expectedly drew increased interest with domestic audiences. ESPN averaged 1.957 million viewers for its Sep. 7 coverage that featured Venus Williams. This was up 35 percent from last year. Then, the Sep. 9 women’s finals with Sloane Stephens defeating Madison Keys drew the best viewership for a women’s championship on ESPN since the network began exclusive U.S. Open coverage in 2015 and were up 26 percent from last year (1.851 million vs. 1.464 million; up 16 percent from two years ago: 1.851 million vs. 1.601 million).
- Drag Racing Gets Huge Boosts as a NASCAR Lead-Out
Live coverage of NHRA races on FS1 in 2017 ranged from 223,000 to 567,000 viewers. But the sizable lead-ins from NASCAR Monster Cup Series races in June proved beneficial for the sport even in tape-delay coverage. The NHRA Summernationals in New Jersey from June 11 on FS1 delivered 1.623 million viewers — the largest audience for a drag racing telecast on TV since at least 2002. The other three tape-delayed NHRA races on Sundays in June also drew one million viewers apiece.
- Big Ten Benefits Fox Sports College Football
As Ken Fang noted previously, college football saw overall ratings declines year-to-year. However, viewership on Fox and FS1 actually rose, thanks to an increased slate of Big Ten coverage. Fox grew 23 percent (3.63 million, from 2016’s 2.95 million) and FS1 was up 4 percent (819,000, from 2016’s 743,000).
- More Fans Keep Going ‘Mad’ in March
The partnership of CBS and Turner Sports for NCAA men’s basketball tournament coverage continued to show positive ratings dividends in 2017. Its 10.8 million viewer average this past spring grew 16 percent from last year (the 2016 tourney had its Final Four and Championship games air solely on Turner’s cable networks) and, with the exception of 2015, was the most-watched tournament in 23 years.
- Boxing’s Profile Rises on Cable
2017 saw several positives for the sport of boxing on cable television. Its marquee boxing bout for the year featured a legendary boxer (Floyd Mayweather) versus the currently most popular UFC fighter (Conor McGregor) on Aug. 26 and generated the second largest pay-per-view boxing event of all-time in the U.S. (with 4.3 million buys).
Top Rank Boxing on ESPN registered the year’s twelve most-viewed fights on cable, headlined by the 3.925 million viewers of the WBO World Welterweight Championship: Manny Pacquiao vs. Jeff Horn in the “Battle of Brisbane” from Australia from July 1 — the highest-rated and most-watched boxing telecast on cable TV since 2006; also, the highest-rated boxing telecast on ESPN’s networks since 1995.
HBO remained the pay cable boxing leader for the year, but Showtime showed some inroads with airing three of the year’s top eight premium cable bouts. The boxing bout of Adrien Broner’s victory over Mikey Garcia in a 12-round, unanimous-decision as part of “Showtime Championship Boxing” on Saturday, July 29 averaged 881,000 viewers and peaking at 937,000 viewers, marking Showtime’s top audience for a live boxing match in nearly three years. Of course, the aforementioned Mayweather-McGregor pay-per-view fight was also produced by Showtime.
- Baseball May Not Be Dying After All
MLB enjoyed an October that featured high-profile teams from the four most populated U.S. cities — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. Prior to the World Series, the postseason across Fox, FS1, TBS and ESPN averaged 4.8 million viewers — the highest average in six years. Yankees-Astros ALCS Game 7 posted 9.9 million viewers, the most-watched telecast in FS1 history. The seven-game Astros-Dodgers World Series on Fox averaged 18.9 million viewers — second-best WS since 2009; third-best since 2004.
- Continued Slide of the NFL
No doubt, the NFL is still the top dog in the TV ratings. 37 of the year’s top 50 telecasts (thru Dec. 22) were NFL games. But despite several years at the start of the decade bucking the trend of vast erosion of overall TV viewership, the sport has suffered declines in consecutive years. Thru Week 15, the NFL is down 9 percent in total viewers (15 million vs. 16.4 million) and even steeper drops among younger demos. With many reasons that factors in to its recent declines, the topic continues to be ripe for discussion.
- Resurgence of the NBA
2017 was a banner year for the NBA. The third consecutive meeting of the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals only lasted for five games in June yet averaged the most viewers since 1998. The solid ratings continued into July as the Summer League crossed the 1-million viewer threshold for the very first time, thanks to Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball. And the flurry of offseason activity that saw the league’s stars land in several new spots — Boston, Houston and Oklahoma City — combined with decent starts for teams like the rising 76ers and Knicks have resulted in significant gains for its NBA television partners at the start of the 2017-18 regular season, as of Dec. 21: TNT up 25 percent (2.1 million viewers from 16 telecasts), ESPN up 18 percent (1.8 million viewers from 30 telecasts) and NBA TV up 25 percent (365,000 viewers from 41 telecasts).