Ratings for ESPN’s “The Last Dance” Reveal a Desperation for Sports Content

The premiere of "The Last Dance" was a slam dunk in the ratings department

Michael Jordan holds up the Most Valuable Player trophy at the All-Star game. (TIM CLARY/AFP via Getty)
Michael Jordan holds up the Most Valuable Player trophy at the All-Star game. (TIM CLARY/AFP via Getty)
AFP via Getty Images

While many Americans are just horny in the conventional sense, there is clearly a huge portion of the United States population that is horny in the more modern way for the return of sports. We know this because the first two installments of ESPN’s Michael Jordan docuseries The Last Dance were a slam dunk in the ratings department when they aired on Sunday night.

With an average of 6.1 million viewers across ESPN and ESPN2 during the premiere of the 10-part documentary, The Last Dance was the most-watched telecast among adults 18-34 and 18-49 on broadcast and cable networks since sports stopped being played last month. The premiere episodes were the most-viewed original content broadcasts on ESPN Networks since 2004 and were also the most-viewed telecast on ESPN since the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.

While those numbers may not jump off the page, let’s put them in perspective: This year’s Academy Awards telecast on ABC attracted an average audience of 23.6 million total viewers, down from last year’s viewership numbers of 29.6 million. Though they are both owned by Disney, ABC, unlike ESPN, is not a pay-to-watch cable network. That being the case, drawing a quarter of the audience of the one-off Academy Awards with a cable broadcast that still has four weeks to go has to be viewed as a huge win for ESPN.

In addition to attracting viewers on TV, The Last Dance also dominated the conversation on social media. According to ESPN, the show was the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter on Monday after being the top Google search trend in the U.S. on Sunday. On Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, Last Dance posts by ESPN drew a combined 9 million engagements.

Is the show good? Yes. But is the desperation for sports content also padding those numbers? For sure. Either way, ESPN has to be happy about its decision to release the series early.

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