The Boston Red Sox celebrate a Wild Card win.

The Boston Red Sox’s 6-2 win over the New York Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game Tuesday night set some ratings records for ESPN. As per Mitch Metcalf at ShowBuzz Daily, the main ESPN TV broadcast (with Matt Vasgersian, Alex Rodriguez, and Buster Olney) drew an average audience of 7.11 million, with the ESPN2 broadcast (a Statcast-driven alternate presentation with Jason Benetti, Eduardo Perez and Mike Petriello) averaged 573,000. That puts the total average TV audience (these numbers do not count streaming) as 7.69 million.

That’s an AL Wild Card Game record, even against past games with streaming numbers included. (It gets even better if you also add in the 144,000 average viewers who watched the Spanish-language broadcast on ESPN Deportes; that would make the total ESPN TV audience 7.83 million, which is a Wild Card Game record from either league.) As per ESPN’s release, that’s the most-watched MLB game on their platforms since 1998:

The 2021 Major League Baseball American League Wild Card Game presented by Hankook Tire – the Boston Red Sox defeated the New York Yankees 6-2 – is the most-watched MLB game on ESPN platforms since 1998. The game telecasts across ESPN and ESPN2 averaged 7.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen. The game peaked with 8.4 million viewers from 10:15-10:30 p.m. ET.

…The American League Wild Card Game presented by Hankook Tire propelled ESPN to win the night across all of television, including broadcast and cable. Additionally, it was the most-streamed MLB event ever on ESPN platforms with 73.6 million minutes consumed digitally.

ESPN’s past Wild Card Game record is an average audience of 7.59 million (TV plus streaming) English-language viewers, 7.71 million viewers with Spanish-language viewers included, for the Mets-Giants NL Wild Card game in 2016. That game drew average audiences of 7.42 million on ESPN,   173,800 on streaming, and 116,000 on ESPN Deportes. So the 2021 game comes out slightly ahead either counting Spanish-language viewers both ways or only counting the English-language audience both ways. (The past overall Wild Card Game record is an average audience of 8.3 million for Cubs-Pirates on TBS in 2015.)

Unfortunately, ESPN did not break out the average minute audience on streaming this year, so it’s not possible to add an equivalent streaming number to this year’s audience. The number would certainly be higher if that was worked in.  Meanwhile, the past AL Wild Card Game record appears to be an average of 7.604 million viewers for the Yankees-Astros AL Wild Card Game in 2015. That release only includes ESPN numbers, though, so it would have been higher if streaming and Spanish-language numbers were included.

At any rate, this is a particularly notable jump from 2020 (hard to directly compare thanks to not just the pandemic, but the change in format with 18 different “Wild Card Games”: the best number there was only 2.593 million for Yankees-Indians Game 1, though), 2019 (4.54 million for Rays-A’s on ESPN, 4.73 million for Brewers-Nationals on TBS), 2018 (6.99 million for Rockies-Cubs on ESPN, 6.16 million for A’s-Yankees on TBS), and 2017 (6.7 million for Twins-Yankees on ESPN, 4.40 million for Rockies-Diamondbacks on TBS). And it’s notable to see these kinds of numbers, especially before the streaming numbers, as the pay-TV universe (and specifically, the number of ESPN subscribers) is much smaller in 2021 than it was in 2016.

Let’s take a look at that in particular. In late 2016, Nielsen carriage estimates had ESPN at 88.956 million homes. (Yes, Nielsen briefly pulled that report (which featured a monthly loss of 621,000 homes for ESPN alone) pending an ESPN complaint, and investigated, but then decided to stand by its original numbers a week later after that investigation.) At the time, that was seen as disastrous for ESPN, considering that they’d had 100 million subscribers five years before.

But that’s much better than where the numbers have gone since then. The estimates had ESPN at 85.988 million homes in September 2018, 84.698 million homes in April 2019, and 80.1 million last December. We haven’t seen more recent numbers than that, but it seems likely it may be at least slightly lower now. So it’s certainly remarkable that ESPN is hitting a (for-them) Wild Card Game TV ratings record despite being in around 9 million less homes than it was at the time of the last record. Granted, there are some caveats there, including the counting of out-of-home audiences these days (very important for sports!), but it’s still remarkable to see ESPN setting any kind of audience record in an era where it has many less subscribers. And that maybe says a whole lot about the draw of the Yankees and Red Sox.

[ShowBuzz Daily, ESPN Press Room; photo from Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He previously worked at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.