The entire ESPN family of networks has been synonymous with sports on television for decades now. ESPN remains the clear leader in that field, and 2018 will be no different, as it comfortably leads the pack.
More troubling, perhaps, is the fact that ESPN2 will not finish second. That’s actually never happened before; since the launch of ESPN2 in 1993 (leather-clad Keith Olbermann and all) the two networks have always finished first and second, respectively, among sports networks. Worse still for ESPN, ESPN2 is going to slide all the way to fourth, according to John Ourand at Sports Business Daily:
Even with three weeks left in the TV ratings year, it’s clear that ESPN2 will fall all the way to fourth in both prime time and total day viewership. That puts the network behind both NBCSN and FS1 — both of which posted record high viewership for their channels this year in the time period from Jan. 1-Dec. 2.
There are obviously a variety of factors here. It a World Cup year, and while the lack of an American presence definitely hurt Fox overall, it was still a boost for Fs1. And it was also an Olympic year for NBC, which obviously always plays a role:
NBCSN was helped by the Pyeongchang Olympics, which accounted for 13 of the 20 most-watched shows on the network. NBCSN also was helped by four NASCAR races and three NHL playoff games — Games 2 and 3 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Capitals and the Golden Knights; and Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final between the Capitals and the Lightning.
But “NBCSN has the Olympics” isn’t a bad thing! Too often that’s a ratings narrative, as though we shouldn’t give them credit for securing a valuable television property and reaping the benefits. In prior years, ESPN2 would have seen that World Cup boost, for example. Securing wider distribution for their cable networks and stocking them with live rights was always going to be the key to a wider market share for NBC and Fox, and it looks like they’re succeeding. (Fs1 almost finished second in 2017, as well.)
Four years ago, we wrote how NBCSN and FS1 were actually competing with ESPN2, at least in the near-term. Then and now, ESPN’s hold on the #1 spot is just about unbreakable. But as other networks pick off properties, it makes sense that ESPN2 would feel the squeeze first.