The Last Dance

One of the big questions with the impressive Week 1 ratings for ESPN’s 1997-98 Chicago Bulls documentary The Last Dance was how those ratings would hold up over time. After all, there have been plenty of sports events that have gotten off to a strong start only to see major declines after that, including the AAF and both incarnations of the XFL. And a notable previous multi-part ESPN documentary, OJ: Made In America, also saw drop-offs after the premiere (which was on ABC rather than ESPN, but still, the decline was significant). However, The Last Dance has managed to retain its audience very well so far. As per ESPN, the audience for Sunday’s third episode (across ESPN and ESPN2, which is airing the language-censored version) was even above the audience the second episode drew the previous Sunday, and the fourth episode’s audience wasn’t bad either. Here’s more from that release:

“The Last Dance” continued its momentum on its second night. Episodes 3 and 4 averaged 5.9 million viewers across ESPN & ESPN2 from 9-11 p.m. ET, with episode 3 (9-10 p.m.) averaging 6.1 million viewers and episode 4 (10-11 p.m.) averaging 5.7 million viewers, based on initial Nielsen reporting. 

Combined with last week’s premiere episodes, the documentary series now represents the four most-viewed original content broadcasts on ESPN Networks since 2004 and is averaging 6.0 million viewers across its first four episodes based on initial Nielsen reporting. “The Last Dance” accounts for 4 of the 6 most-viewed telecasts among adults 18-34 since sports halted in mid-March.

Episode Average Viewership (ESPN & ESPN2)*
Episode 1 (4/19, 9pm) 6,340,000
Episode 2 (4/19, 10pm) 5,792,000
Episode 3 (4/26, 9pm) 6,144,000
Episode 4 (4/26, 10pm) 5,657,000

That release also notes that episodes one and two saw a substantial uptick in delayed viewing reporting metrics (as you’d expect), with their metrics rising to an average of 9,229,000 viewers for the two episodes once time-shifted and on-demand recording was factored in (presumably L+7). And episodes three and four will likely see that kind of a bump too; in a DVR and on-demand age, lots of people watch broadcasts after the fact (especially for things that aren’t live sports). So there are a whole lot of people tuning in for this documentary; it’s not quite the record-setting average audience of 15.6 million viewers for the first round of this year’s NFL Draft (across ABC, ESPN, NFL Network and ESPN Deportes), but it’s not far behind the average audience of 8.4 million viewers for all three days of the draft (which had wider channel exposure), and it’s above the 4.2 million viewers who watched Day 3.

Of course, in some respects this is all gravy for ESPN at this point. The premiere of The Last Dance had already blown ESPN’s previous documentary record (3.6 million viewers for You Don’t Know Bo in the 2012 post-Heisman slot) out of the water, impressive considering ESPN’s much-lower distribution these days (they were in just under 100 million homes in 2012 versus around 85 million last April, the last time we saw coverage estimate data). So this was already a success even if Week 2 had seen a sharp decline, and it (along with the popularity of their NFL Draft coverage) were strong arguments for the network in the fights of “should subscribers still be paying for sports networks with no live sports on?”

But the small week-to-week decline here is a good argument that the initial audience for The Last Dance wasn’t just a flash in the pan. It’s also a good case that there are plenty of people interested in the whole 10-part story (and interested in keeping ESPN to be able to watch it). We’ll see where the The Last Dance audience goes from here, but the numbers for Episodes 3 and 4 are certainly encouraging in terms of ongoing viewer interest.


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.