NFL Death, Taxes, and Spectators. Few things in life are certain, but these are three. The final legs of February represent a break from the National Football League following what is always the most watched program of the year. Final viewership for the Kansas City Chiefs’ win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII was 113.1 million viewers on Fox, including a peak of 118.9 million from 8:00 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. ET. That average viewership ranked as the third most-watched U.S. television show ever.
The NFL, even with small ebbs and flows in those who consume the product, remains the standard bearer of the sports audience in America. But this week, my colleague Bill Shea and I were thinking about which sports have the best prospects of making a leap in viewership over the next couple of years, similar to what Formula 1 did recently. Last year’s Formula 1 season averaged 1.21 million viewers per race on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, up 28% from 2021’s record of 949,000 average viewers. Broadcast and cable windows and marketing had a significant impact on that leap, but numbers are numbers — and that’s an impressive story. Are there other sports out there that can increase viewership? Let’s discuss it.
Deitsch: I like the idea of trying to extrapolate which sports are likely to gain viewership over the next couple of years, especially compared to the broader industry trends of cord-cutting, cord-nevers and inventory switches to streaming. I have a couple of sports that I like, but I’ll let you go first as you’ve written a lot about spectator sports over the last couple of years. What are you looking at?
Shea: The obvious property is Formula One, which garnered a lot of attention for garnering a lot of attention in the U.S. thanks to not only racing but also “Drive To Survive” on Netflix — those kinds of narrative docuseries about these sports are something we’re going to see being rolled out more and more. The XFL has such programming with “Player 54: Chasing the XFL Dream” directed by Peter Berg on Disney platforms. Having said that, I don’t know how much room F1 still has to grow an audience, but there’s probably still some catwalk left. We’re seeing all sorts of sports that are fringe in the US, like rugby and cricket, make small inroads but nothing that moves the needle in any significant way.
I think women’s college softball, who topped the Men’s College World Series, will continue to do good numbers. I think the WNBA and other women’s sports will continue to grow viewership as networks and advertisers move past the “Mad Men” era thinking they are grossing sports programming that have unrealized value. Overall, as the television industry – and by that I mean the mechanics of broadcasting sports and entertainment from linear television to streaming – remains in flux with changing consumer habits, technological evolutions, etc., we are not yet in a stable new normal. We will experience ups and downs, which provides windows of opportunity for the non-major leagues to collect eyeballs.
Deitsch: I think 2023 is the year in which F1 reaches its maximum number of spectators. I hope I’m wrong as it’s an exciting sport to watch. I have long been a supporter of women’s basketballand that sport still has plenty of runway to continue to grow: South Carolina’s win over Connecticut in the 2022 NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship averaged 4.85 million viewers, making it the most-watched college basketball game on ESPN since 2008. If ESPN continues to increase its ABC programming for the WNBA and women’s college basketball, the numbers will continue to rise.
But the two sports I would choose in the short term are women’s college volleyball and softballs. Let’s start with women’s volleyball. Sport is made for visual vision: it’s fast-paced, with hyper-athletic athletes. The 2022 National Championship between Texas and Louisville was an outlier in terms of viewership. The game averaged 786,000 viewers on ESPN2, far down from 2021, when Wisconsin-Nebraska drew 1.19 million viewers on ESPN2. The 2021 final is up 71% from 2020 (during the COVID year). I think you’ll see the national league break out again in 2023. (I’d also like to note that the Big Ten Network has done a great job scheduling and promoting women’s college volleyball and has seen strong viewership.)
College softball is also fast-paced and athletic, with many scores and games finishing in a relatively short amount of time. ESPN treated the sport as a Tier I property and was rewarded with a strong viewership. The final game of the Women’s College World Series in 2022 – Oklahoma vs. Texas – averaged 1.7 million viewers and peaked at 2.1 million. This is essentially what the NHL Winter Classic gets in the audience. With everything preparing for women’s sports — attendances, funding, participation, opportunities — audiences are set to follow. If they get more big-name ads, watch out.
South Carolina’s win over UConn in the 2022 women’s basketball title game was the most-watched college basketball game on ESPN in 14 years. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Shea: You are right. Given the exposure on the big channels, especially the broadcast networks, along with the right blend of hype men’s sports have long enjoyed — boom, there’s a nice total audience. The evidence is there and I think the networks are coming. Critics—writing about women’s sports brings out caveman attitudes with some people—often fail to understand that not every show has to have huge audiences.
You can’t use a legacy sports property as a reference for comparison because that’s not how TV works. If it did, everything on TV would be a bust when compared to a casual NFL game because TV consumption has changed so dramatically in the last decade. Giant tech networks and streamers have their own internal success metrics for each piece of programming. Is it affecting those metrics? Is it free or does it make money? Bloody money? Is there other programming you can fit into that timeslot that is cheaper and will generate more profit? This is the age-old question about television programming. It’s why you find cornhole, darts and cable bowling at odd times – there are spectators, but they don’t have to be huge to survive. It’s like firing a fringe manager – do you have a replacement in mind who will win more?
And for women’s sports, there are rich advertisers who want to reach that audience, even if it’s not tens of millions of people, to market their products and services. With the current ad-based model of television, I think that remains the point of all of this: sell stuff to us.
Deitsch: My extended short-term list of sports to watch would include college hockey, masculine and feminine. I think it’s an underrated asset for a small pop of viewers. ESPN executives are very fond of it lacrosse, so this is another sport to watch. I’m not a long-term supporter for any spring soccer league. I don’t see sustainability, even if financed by the networks. I also don’t believe in pickleball as a spectator game, but I do believe in its popularity as a recreational sport. Along the way, I’ll be very curious to see what the 2026 World Cup run-up does for soccer audiences in 2025 and then 2027, as the event will be held in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Shea: Totally agree about the pickleball. Some sports simply lend themselves to participation rather than large television audiences. Fads come and go, like roller derby and jai alai.
As for spring football, I’m on the fence. The original arena league lasted for decades, certainly through different eras and with many struggles. I think there’s a market for some sort of spring product for professional football, but I’m not sure what it is, what it looks like and when it’s best. We may not find out for a long time if the XFL and USFL end up dooming each other, but there are always rich people with money to spend on the dream of spring pro football. I suspect the approaching original USFL remains a siren song for some.
As far as football is concerned, it remains the holy grail for broadcasters. If the United States men’s national team finally makes it to the World Cup final played in the United States, that would be the ideal scenario. The women’s team is world-class and holds the nationally televised record for a soccer broadcast, but a successful USMNT winning the FIFA World Cup trophy on home soil would further elevate the game here and probably break that mark – I’m thinking’ Miracle On The camp scenery.
In the meantime, I can’t wait to see what kind of viewers MLS gets with its new streaming deal with Apple that puts every game behind a paywall (aside from a handful of Fox’s linear TV broadcasts). Like the NFL on Thursday nights with Amazon, there’s a deal: Faustian? – trading reach for dollars in the short term with the hope that streaming will become the primary way Americans consume all content. We’re not there yet, and MLS remains the No. 1 football league in the world. 3 on American TV behind Liga MX and Premier League. Until our top-tier professional league has the largest domestic audience, soccer will remain a sideshow aside from the quadrennial World Cup. Perhaps overall, football on TV will someday rival the NFL, but we’re a long, long way from that.
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(Top photo of Oklahoma celebrating 2022 College World Series title: Brian Bahr/Getty Images)