The Last Dance

ESPN’s 30 for 30 series premiered in October of 2009. In the ten and a half years since, many of the films languished in less than ideal timeslots, head to head with live sports games and other non-sporting events that siphoned away viewers. The most-watched 30 for 30 came eight and a half years ago, when You Don’t Know Bo drew 3.6 million viewers on December 8, 2012 in the traditional post-Heisman ceremony timeslot that has since been ceded to live boxing.

Coming in second was the premiere of OJ: Made in America (which, depending on who you talk to, is either one giant film or five films in a miniseries), drawing 3.4 million viewers on ABC (rather than cable).

That brings us to ESPN’s latest multi-part docuseries, The Last Dance. A couple of weeks ago, Austin Karp of the Sports Business Journal wondered if the premiere of The Last Dance could top the viewership of both the Bo Jackson and OJ Simpson docs.

So, can it? Our Twitter following is wildly optimistic, judging from the results of a highly scientific, clearly infallible poll.

Here are three reasons why it could surpass the Bo Jackson doc, and three reasons why it could not.

Three reasons why

  • There is no other new sports content on. If you’re a sports fan, what else are you going to watch? The other networks are loaded with repeat programming. FS1 is airing a USMNT friendly from 2015. NBCSN has a Seahawks-Patriots regular season game from 2016. NFL Network has pre-draft coverage. Golf Channel, CBS Sports Network, MLB Network, NBA TV, and NHL Network are all airing various classic games, as are most of the college networks. It’s not as if there is a compelling sports option to draw people away from watching The Last Dance.
  • Nearly two years of hype. The first trailer for The Last Dance nearly a year and a half ago, and news about the series itself broke just shy of two years ago. This isn’t some sort of new project that has caught everyone offguard – we all knew about it, were eagerly anticipating it, and were hoping the release date would get moved up when COVID-19 wiped out live sports across the world. It finally did get moved up by two months, everyone rejoiced, and the countdown to premiere night began. The Last Dance has been a project that sports fans have been salivating over for days, weeks, months, or possibly even years, and they’ll be tuning in with bells on.
  • The iconic status of Michael Jordan and the ’90s Bulls. So many of us grew up watching Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990s, just like so many of us grew up watching and revering Bo Jackson. The Jackson 30 for 30 wasn’t the best one that ESPN has aired (I’d argue it’s not even the best post-Heisman 30 for 30) but it’s the most watched because of Jackson’s mythical status among sports fans. Jordan and the ’90s Bulls were just as mythic and transcended the sports world because of their success on the court and popularity off the court. The 1998 NBA Finals, which is the “last dance” the series title refers to, still holds the record for the most-watched Finals ever, and the title-deciding Game 6 remains the most-watched Finals game ever, 22 years later. You’re absolutely out of your mind if you don’t think people want to revisit that series and that season.

Three reasons why not

  • Network TV competition. The broadcast networks have a surprisingly strong slate of shows on the air this Sunday, which isn’t great news for the east coast markets ESPN is looking to capture. ABC has a new two-hour American Idol episode that should draw a decent number. CBS is airing new episodes of God Friended Me, NCIS: LA, and NCIS: New Orleans. NBC has new episodes of The Wall, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, and Good Girls. All four of Fox’s animated comedies are new episodes. If the networks were forced into reruns, that would be much better news for ESPN. But with each network airing blocks of new episodes, that could be a stumbling block in the effort to draw in the casual fan.
  • Lack of a strong lead-in. Before ESPN’s broadcast of The Last Dance, the network is airing an all-day marathon of Peyton’s Places. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that isn’t a strong lead-in for two hours of a basketball docuseries. ESPN2 has esports all day, including a 90 minute re-air of an F1 virtual event from China. The bar-setting Bo Jackson doc had the Heisman ceremony as a lead-in, and while Johnny Manziel vs Manti Te’o seems like a punchline in 2020, the ceremony itself drew 4.9 million viewers, the second-highest mark for the event since 2002. Peyton’s Places and F1 virtual racing will not combine to give The Last Dance that kind of lead-in. Hell, I’d be surprised if the entire marathon of Peyton’s Places drew a total of five million viewers.
  • Less carriage of ESPN and ESPN2. I really don’t want to smash the “cord cutting!” gong again, but when we’re comparing events with a seven year gap in between them, the alarm is valid. In 2012, ESPN and ESPN2 were in nearly 99 million households. In our last batch of carriage estimates last April, ESPN and ESPN2 were each down to around 84 million households, a slide that has not been significantly slowed a year later. Sure, a chunk of those households subscribe to over the top services like YouTube TV and Hulu Live and will watch The Last Dance there, but there are many others who may have been interested in watching the docuseries and will instead opt for on-demand content from Netflix or Hulu (if they watch anything at all). When fewer households have the ability to watch your network, fewer households are going to watch the network. It’s simple math.

As for which way I’m leaning, the answer is firmly in the “over 3.6 million” camp. Sports fans are craving original content, and what we’ve gotten (HORSE, esports, panel and debate shows from home) hasn’t been able to satiate our collective appetite. If a massive docuseries about one of the most popular athletes and most dominant teams of all-time, with full participation from those involved, isn’t going to do it for you, nothing will.

About Joe Lucia

I hate your favorite team. I also sort of hate most of my favorite teams.