This week marks one full year that I’ve been with Awful Announcing providing you the television ratings of the various cable sports networks each and every week after moving over from the original Son of the Bronx blog.
You watched them. Nielsen Media Research tabulated them. And I’m counting down the ten biggest sports ratings highlights within the past twelve months.
10. Weekday afternoon sports on Fox Sports 1 at the expense of Mike Francesa
Fox Sports 1 (FS1) hopes for anything to draw ratings. This year we began to notice the network was doing well on weekday afternoons with Champions League soccer. For a young cable sports outlet such as FS1, garnering 200,000-600,000 total viewers for a midday sporting event is a plus. But its success there also caused collateral damage with one of Fox Sports’ acquisitions for daily programming in 2014: “The Mike Francesa Show.”
Francesa, a 2-time Marconi award-winner, has been New York’s premier sports radio talk show host for the past 25 years and continues to draw huge radio audiences in the New York market. But his New York-centric sports talk show has not caught on nationwide. While it is understandable why Fox Sports chooses to televise higher-rated soccer matches or NASCAR-related programming in his time slot, the preemptions of “The Mike Francesa Show” have become more frequent than even Francesa had anticipated when he had signed his multi-year agreement with Fox Sports — something he almost never experienced in his 12 years of YES Network simulcasts. The sporadic scheduling (whether it be on FS1, FS2, both or neither) has not been a benefit for the show either.
9. LeBron’s return to Cleveland (July 11, 2014)
How do you get up to 1.32 million people to watch an early afternoon edition of “SportsCenter” on ESPN? You report on one of sports’ best feel-good stories (sorry, Miami Heat fans) in recent memory, of course: LeBron James returns back home to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
News first broke online when Lee Jenkins from Sports Illustrated released LeBron James’ famous letter explaining why he desired to go back home and play for Cleveland again.
While viewership was well short of the 9 million who watched his infamous “The Decision” special in 2010, the story spread like wildfire on that summer Friday afternoon and led to one of the most-watched midday (unassisted by a sporting event as a lead-in) editions of “SportsCenter” ever.
And despite a decline in the ratings for the 2014-15 NBA regular season overall, the impressive ratings the current NBA Finals is achieving speaks to the attention Mr. James can generate.
8. NHL ratings milestones
In 2014 NBC made a savvy scheduling move: it aired Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final between the New York Rangers and the Los Angeles Kings on the NBC broadcast network in lieu of its originally scheduled outlet, NBCSN. The reason: to take advantage of the highly-watched Belmont Stakes as California Chrome had the potential to accomplish the Triple Crown which would then immediately lead in to the hockey game. The result: the highest-rated second game of a Stanley Cup Final since at least 1975. No surprise that NBC enacted the same schedule this year for the Blackhawks-Lightning Game 2 as American Pharoah won the Triple Crown.
The Stanley Cup Conference Finals in 2015 were especially a boon to NBCSN and the NHL. Each series went the entire length of seven games. The seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals (Lightning-Rangers) from May 29th was the third most-watched NHL conference final since 2002. A night later, Game 7 of Blackhawks-Ducks became the most-watched non-Stanley Cup Final NHL hockey game on record (dating back to 1994).
Despite worries that the absence of the New York Rangers would limit interest, Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Blackhawks and the Lightning from June 3 on NBC was the most-watched SCF non-overtime Game 1 since 1997.
7. Biggest WWE Raw on USA in Nearly Three Years (March 30, 2015)
2015 has so far been a significant year for World Wrestling Entertainment. Its newly launched WWE Network reached a reported 1 million subscribers. In January, its SmackDown series successfully moved from Fridays to the more lucrative advertiser-friendly Thursday nights on Syfy (with future plans to transfer to fellow NBCUniversal cable network USA in 2016).
ESPN even got in on the action this year with “SportsCenter” featuring Brock Lesnar’s announcement of his renewed agreement with the WWE as well as an appearance by Lesnar’s “manager” Paul Heyman, Jon Gruden’s segment on the Andre the Giant Battle Royale, and news reports from WrestleMania on Mar. 29.
Despite a hiccup at Royal Rumble when the apparent ascendance of Roman Reigns was met with mixed reactions among the fan faithful and a seemingly unstoppable force in Lesnar with a stranglehold of the world heavyweight title, WWE writers (yes fans, pro wrestling is scripted!) found a clever way out: the Authority-backed, entertainingly sleazy and villainous Seth Rollins cashed in his longstanding Money in the Bank contract at WrestleMania (WWE’s Super Bowl) on March 29 and became the new world heavyweight champion.
Its aftermath the following night on Mar. 30 — Rollins’ unwillingness to battle Lesnar for the top title, leading Lesnar to go unhinged, even assaulting WWE announcer Michael Cole, thus getting suspended by Stephanie McMahon for such actions — gave “Raw” its biggest audience since their celebrated 1,000th episode from July 23, 2012.
6. Derek Jeter’s final Yankee Stadium game (September 25, 2014)
It was a regular season game that didn’t mean much (if at all) in the standings. The Baltimore Orioles had already clinched the American League East. The New York Yankees had already been eliminated from playoff contention. And as Derek Jeter (who had an subpar 2014 regular season statistically) was playing in the final games of his lauded career, he delivered a dramatic 9th-inning opposite-field game-winning RBI single to defeat the Orioles in his final game at Yankee Stadium. The celebration even outdid what the Yankees had originally planned for Jeter: a reunion with former teammates Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, and Bernie Williams as well as former manager Joe Torre to help him say farewell to the Stadium.
The game achieved two ratings milestones: it drew the largest audience ever on the Yankees’ regional sports network YES Network and was the most-watched regular-season game to-date on MLB Network.
Jeter would later appear as a designated hitter that weekend in Fenway Park against Boston, but it was on that fateful Thursday night that was his final game as a shortstop for the New York Yankees.
5. Super Bowl XLIX on NBC (February 1, 2015)
America’s biggest annual sporting event reached even larger ratings heights in 2015. Of course, this comes as no surprise: the Big Game has outdrawn its previous year’s Big Game in nine of the past ten years (2006-15). But this year’s event was especially of interest — the Seattle Seahawks, who clobbered the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII just twelve months prior but barely escaped the Green Bay Packers at home in a classic NFC title game, would face the predominant force of the AFC in the 21st century, the New England Patriots.
Belichick, Brady, Gronk and co. rolled by the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game, but controversy soon ensued — several footballs from the contest on the Patriots’ side were discovered to be under-inflated and thus, the DeflateGate scandal was born.
The DeflateGate story had been rampant leading up to pro football’s championship, but nothing about it was definitely resolved by Super Bowl game time (of course).
As a result, in terms of household rating, it was the largest-rated Super Bowl since 1986 (another Patriots Super Bowl but against Mike Ditka’s Chicago Bears) and the highest-rated sporting event since the ladies’ figure skating short program at the 1994 Winter Olympics (CBS sure thanked Nancy and Tonya.)
4. 2015 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament
For many years, CBS was the lone broadcaster of the popular college basketball tournament. Regional action had limited exposure for all games of the tournament. Turner Sports entered into the March Madness picture in 2011 and the multi-channel format was born.
In 2015, the fifth year of the CBS/Turner broadcast, the Men’s tournament again achieved great ratings success but to new zeniths. It became the highest rated tournament since 1998 and the most-watched tournament since 1993.
The Duke-Wisconsin matchup on CBS was the most-watched national basketball championship since 1997. Wisconsin halting Kentucky’s journey for an undefeated season on Turner Sports (TBS, TNT and truTV) was the most-watched Final Four semifinal since 1996; it also drew the largest audience ever for a telecast on TBS — a record that should last for one year as the network will televise the national championship in 2016.
3. 2014 World Cup from Brazil
The 2014 World Cup was the final year that both ESPN and Univision were the broadcast outlets for a World Cup, and they each made spectacular exits. Their coverage of the popular soccer tournament well depicted the large breadth, pageantry and high drama of the world-renowned event. And a growing amount of American sports fans took notice.
Combining ESPN and Univision telecasts in total viewers, U.S. matches drew 15.9 million (vs. Ghana), 24.8 million (vs. Portugal), 14.2 million (vs. Germany) and 21.6 million (vs. Belgium), respectively. With the exception of the match versus Portugal (which was on a Sunday), those impressive viewership numbers occurred for weekday afternoon matches.
Sure, the United States hosted the World Cup in 1994 and USMNT went the furthest they’ve ever gone in a World Cup since 1930 in 2002 (reaching the Quarterfinals), but it was in 2014 where it seemed even the casual American sports fan had the most significant interest for the World Cup than he or she ever had — not only for the U.S. team but for the rest of the teams overall. The Round-of-16 Netherlands/Mexico match combined to draw 17 million viewers, for example.
The public relations departments for each ESPN and Univision networks were feverishly busy during the months of June and July, practically pushing out press releases about their larger-than-ever World Cup ratings on a daily basis. For some matches, Univision even boasted its viewership that topped the English-language ESPN counterpart.
26.5 million watched the Germany/Argentina World Cup final on ABC and Univision, but one can imagine how astronomical the ratings might be if the United States ever reaches a World Cup Final.
2. College Football Playoff on ESPN (January 1 and 12, 2015)
For decades, the party line from the heads of college football was the sport didn’t need a playoff — the annual bowl season sufficed.
But in this current decade, with lackluster games being played in the major bowls, college football finally came to their senses by getting rid of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) and installed a playoff system which would begin play on New Year’s Day 2015.
Leading up to the new playoff would be the release of team seedings, as determined by the 13-member selection committee, every Tuesday evening on ESPN, driving more discussion of the sport among fans and experts.
Then, the College Football Playoff Semifinals were played on January 1, 2015. Oregon-Florida State in the Rose Bowl set the all-time viewership record for a cable telecast — a record that would only last about four hours, when Ohio State-Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in prime time had surpassed it. Eleven days later, the College Football National Championship with Ohio State-Oregon bested all.
Sports fans tuned to college football in historic droves this past winter, making the long overdue playoff an unabashed immediate success. It generated enormous revenues for the participating colleges (with the exception for its collegiate athletes, of course!).
And my pick for the biggest sports ratings highlight within the past year happens to be for an event where its actual viewership numbers are unclear. One can estimate that tens of millions of people had tuned in from not only households but also nightclubs, bars, restaurants and many other different places open on that Saturday night.
But one reported number is quite certain: 4.4 million.
That figure is the estimated number of pay-per-view purchases for the so-called “Fight of the Century” on May 2nd: Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, shattering the previous pay-per-view buys record of 2.48 million for Mayweather-De La Hoya in 2007.
The event brought together two pay-cable rivals, HBO and Showtime, into an unprecedented joint venture because each network had contracts with one of the participating fighters: Mayweather with Showtime, Pacquiao with HBO.
There was also some renewed interest for the sport of boxing in the spring of 2015 with the advent of Premier Boxing Champions which premiered to decent numbers for NBC back in March.
There hadn’t been this much anticipation for a boxing match since 1997 when Mike Tyson had a late-night snack with Evander Holyfield’s ear. Would Mayweather-Pacquiao live up to its enormous hype? Sadly, not even close. While the bout went the full distance of twelve rounds, the low percentage of punches landed combined with Mayweather’s defensive boxing style made for a pay-per-snooze.
To add further salt in the wound for the cable customers who ordered the $90-100 fight were the problems they had faced such as multi-hourlong outages, and connectivity issues. The frustrations towards the nation’s many cable companies were extensive. It even led commentator Jim Lampley to announce a delay to the start of the main bout to allow time for the cable operators to resolve the various technical issues. It was supposed to be a great night for the cable companies, but like the fight itself, that promise fell way short of expectations.
It will be a long while for boxing to again reach the magnitude of attention it had received that night. Not even a Mayweather-Pacquiao rematch could garner it. Who knows when boxing’s up-and-coming stars will rise among its ranks to enter the mainstream at large and an audience like that is reached again.
My thanks to the people who brought me on board this great website. I look forward to another year of sharing with you the television ratings from the cable sports networks you watch each week.