ESPN’s presence in the sports TV game has usually been so dominant that their executives can say cable sports competitors are really only challenging ESPN2 rather than the main network, but that wasn’t the case this past week. As Sports TV Ratings reports, both NBCSN and Fox Sports 1 beat the main ESPN network in total primetime viewers last week, with NBCSN also winning in the demographic of adults 18-49. NBCSN pulled in 1,198,000 viewers on average, with FS1 having 680,000 and ESPN just 665,000. Of course, if you throw in ESPN2’s 320,000 and include that 245,000 of ESPN’s viewers were in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic (as compared to 520,000 at NBCSN, but just 164,000 on FS1), things look a little better for the Worldwide Leader. It’s also worth noting that they handily won the total day ratings. Still, this suggests that more and more viewers are becoming aware of NBCSN and FS1, especially when they have impressive live prime-time events.

That’s really the key to these ratings, and it helps provide some clarity on why we’re still seeing such incredible money paid for the rights to live sports. In a normal week, NBCSN and FS1 aren’t passing ESPN, much less almost doubling its total viewers the way NBCSN did. A normal week doesn’t include two Stanley Cup Final games on NBCSN, though. That kind of highly-anticipated event programming causes viewers to seek out the channel. NBCSN has also benefited from airing extended pre-game and post-game coverage of NHL games (as they did after Monday’s final game, with NBC itself cutting away shortly after the trophy presentation), further drawing in hockey fans. The NHL has done very well for the main NBC network, as Monday night’s ratings show, but perhaps even its greater benefit to the company comes from boosting NBCSN’s ratings.

It’s a similar story with Fox Sports 1, which is generally benefiting from the popularity of the Women’s World Cup (which also launched them into second place behind ESPN in both total viewers and demo viewers during the day) and specifically took advantage of the big crowd for the U.S. women’s team’s first game against Australia last Monday (which drew an average of 3.3 million viewers). The Women’s World Cup success is particularly notable, as Fox is recording far better ratings for it than ESPN did when they had the rights four years ago. Some of that’s about the time zone (Canada’s a far more favourable host that way than Germany was), and some of it’s about the growing popularity of women’s soccer. Keep in mind that some of the top games are being aired on the Fox broadcast network instead of FS1, too, including Friday’s U.S. – Sweden match (which set a record for soccer on Fox with an average of 4.5 million viewers, making it the fourth-most women’s soccer game of all time in the U.S., behind only three Women’s World Cup finals) and Monday’s U.S. – Nigeria clash. When those are considered too, the value of strong live programming seems even greater.

However, ESPN shouldn’t be too worried here. For one thing, the Stanley Cup Final and the Women’s World Cup aren’t going to happen every week, and this is a week far outside the norm; ESPN is usually the comfortable leader in these primetime audience breakdowns, and that’s not going away just because of a week with impressive events on other cable sports networks. It’s also well worth remembering that the best possible programming ESPN owner Disney has during this time of the year, the NBA Finals, is broadcast on sister network ABC, where it’s pulling in ratings well beyond what we’ve seen for hockey or the Women’s World Cup. A comparison including all of the cable channels together with all of their broadcast siblings would likely have the ESPN-ABC team on top. It’s also notable that Disney doesn’t feel the need to try and send those games to cable, as ESPN’s already an established presence; thus, while Fox and NBC are using their highest-value programming this month to build their cable networks, Disney isn’t following suit, meaning that the primetime comparisons here aren’t indicative of the overall strength of each network’s sports broadcasting empire. Having those marquee games on ABC rather than ESPN doesn’t help ESPN’s primetime ratings, but those games are still a substantial asset for the larger company.

There are a few overall takeaways here. FS1 and NBCSN have become prominent enough that they’re acceptable destinations for top events, and those top events can help them pull in ratings that will even beat ESPN. These ratings are further proof that these are viable cable sports networks, ones that can occasionally even challenge the Worldwide Leader. They need strong live events to do that, though, and that adds to the importance of paying for those live rights. However, ESPN’s still generally the top dog, and the total day ratings illustrate that; ESPN’s cheap-by-comparison studio programming is pulling in significant audiences, and FS1’s doing okay during the day while they have live Women’s World Cup games, but NBCSN is quite a ways down. NBCSN and FS1 are moving closer to ESPN, and they may pull off the occasional upset, but they’re still a long ways from true week-in, week-out competitors for top dog. Even with that said, though, executives at NBC and Fox will be very happy with these numbers. It’s not all about beating ESPN, either; it’s about showing there’s a massive sports audience to go around on cable, especially for live games.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.