No. 8 North Carolina’s 88-72 win over No. 1 Duke Wednesday (following Duke star Zion Williamson’s exit with a knee injury) drew incredible ratings for ESPN. It’s not all that surprising that this proved to be a well-rated college basketball game, considering the way media outlets have (mostly justifiably) hyped up Williamson and Duke this year and considering the regular interest in the UNC-Duke rivalry, but the levels it went to are a bit surprising.
Paulsen has more on that at Sports Media Watch:
Wednesday’s North Carolina-Duke college basketball game delivered a 3.2 overnight rating on ESPN, the highest college basketball overnight of the season on any network. Figures for last year’s comparable meeting were not immediately available.
The 3.2 is the highest regular season college basketball overnight on ESPN in 11 years, since the same UNC-Duke matchup in March 2008 (3.7). It is the third-highest on record — dating back to 2002 — behind the 2008 UNC-Duke game and Tennessee-Memphis that same season (3.6). That excludes Championship Week.
This also beat every regular-season NBA broadcast this year except ABC’s Christmas Day coverage. And NBA comparisons are particularly interesting, as even with down ratings this year, that league tends to still draw more viewers than college basketball. (Especially before the NCAA tournament.) And this wasn’t just a win over cable NBA broadcasts; it also edged the seven non-Christmas NBA on ABC games to date). It did, however, come in behind the NBA all-star game (which notched a 3.8).
It’s understandable why that happened. This was a matchup of top-ten teams, including the country’s top-ranked team, and it was one where the underdog won, which helps to keep people tuned in even if the final score wasn’t all that close. It’s also a broadcast where people may have kept watching to see if there were injury updates on Williamson, But it’s still significant to see these numbers. And it shows that regular-season college basketball can be a big draw in the right circumstances.