The overnight ratings for Wednesday night’s ESPYS have a couple of different possible interpretations. On the bright side for ABC, the 0.9 rating in the 18-49 demographic and 3.87 million viewers was about even with last year, and it propelled the network to an overall win on the night. (CBS’ Big Brother had a 1.0 and 4.09 million viewers, but lower numbers for the Eye’s Love Island and SWAT meant ABC wound up in first overall.) But on the other hand, holding steady from last year isn’t necessarily all that good considering that the 2018 ESPYS broadcast marked the event’s third straight year of ratings declines, including a 36 percent year-over-year drop in the 18-49 demographic and a 26 percent drop in total viewership.
In some ways, this is a similar story to what we’ve seen lately with NASCAR. After ratings plummeted repeatedly over the past few years, this year’s slight growth for Fox’s first half of the season (up three percent in ratings and two percent in viewership) is definitely a positive. But slight growth over a previous low isn’t necessarily great overall, and that’s the same story with the ESPYs. It’s certainly better for them to hold steady than to see another drop, and the ratings aren’t bad by comparison to the current state of broadcast TV (as can be seen from ABC winning the night with these ratings), but they’re also not what they once were (the high-water mark for the ESPYs on ABC was 7.7 million viewers in 2015, the event’s first year on the broadcast network), and they’re not building back up towards that.
So then, the question becomes if this level of ratings (if it holds) is worth it for ESPN and ABC, and the answer is probably yes. While the 2018 and 2019 ratings are nowhere near what they got in 2015, they’re still higher than the event ever recorded on ESPN (where it aired from 1993-2014). A lot of that is about broadcast TV’s higher reach; Nielsen estimates there are 119.9 million TV homes in the U.S. this season, and the last coverage estimate we saw for ESPN was 84.7 million homes in April, so that’s a difference of 35.2 million potential homes. But the ratings needed for a successful broadcast TV show have dramatically changed over the last few years, with more people watching cable and streaming services instead, and a 0.9 in the demo can be seen as a solid and even night-winning broadcast instead of a flop.
Of course, ratings also need to be measured against production costs, and the ESPYs are probably not that cheap to put on. But they were seen as worth it for ESPN for the 1993-2014 run where they were drawing less audience than they got this year (albeit on cable rather than on broadcast), and the ratings they pulled here seem acceptable. And it’s certainly good news for them that the ratings didn’t fall further. The ESPYs may not be as big as they’ve been, but they still seem like a decent option for ESPN and ABC at this point, especially on one of the slowest sports days of the year.
[Screencap from ABC’s ESPYs recap]