Top Sports Ratings Moments of 2021
The following list counts down the biggest sports ratings highlights within the past twelve months, based on its impact on the sports television spectrum.
During the year 2021, sports were approaching some sense of normalcy. Thanks to the available vaccines, fans returned to fill arenas and stadiums, while those at homes or elsewhere were gradually flocking back to their TV sets or mobile viewing devices. But as the calendar transitioned from 2021 to 2022, the pandemic remained a concern, with a continued impact upon the sports world.
The following list counts down the biggest sports ratings highlights within the past twelve months, based on its impact on the sports television spectrum as we all attempt to come out of the pandemic. America’s four major sports are represented, as are the WNBA, MLS, and PGA golf.
10. NHL Sees Immediate Gains Upon Returns to ESPN and ABC
After a 17-year absence, the National Hockey League returned to the cable network where it found its footing in the ’80s and ’90s, ESPN. Bolstered by its frequent mentions in ads and features throughout its studio shows (most notably, “SportsCenter”), the start of the season with marquee team Pittsburgh Penguins at defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning drew just shy of one million viewers. That was enough to have delivered the largest NHL opening night audience on cable on record (since 1993)
This is the first of three sports ratings moments on this list to have taken place at or surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday. ABC’s telecast of New York Rangers vs. Boston Bruins on Nov. 26 averaged 1.23 million viewers (with a peak of 1.57 million), marking the most-watched NHL Black Friday Gams since 2016.
9. Continued Growth for WNBA Finals
When the stars come out to play, fans will follow. This year’s WNBA Finals featured several notable names: Candace Parker, Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, and Skylar Diggins-Smith. The series’ peak viewership came on Oct. 12 for the Phoenix Mercury’s Game 2 overtime win (their lone Finals victory) over the Chicago Sky. It delivered 763,000 viewers, having aired on ESPN — the most-watched WNBA Finals game on any network, including ABC, in four years. That figure lifted the Finals’ average to 548,000 viewers across its four games which is the championship series’ largest since 2017.
The Finals have steadily increased in consecutive years (2019-21) for the first time since 2004-07.
8. MLS Has a Postseason to Remember
It was, no doubt, assisted by its NFL lead-in, but Major League Soccer gladly accepted the viewer boost on Thanksgiving Day. The playoffs were already in full swing, and one of its important matches featured the Colorado Rapids versus the Portland Timbers. Taking place after NFL Bears-Lions, almost 1.9 million watched MLS action — the largest audience for the league since the 2016 MLS Cup, which aired on Fox and Spanish-language broadcaster UniMas. The mark was MLS’ largest on a single network since 2004.
Adding to its banner postseason, the No. 1 TV market in the nation became home to the MLS Cup champions, NYCFC. An average of 1.1 million had watched NYCFC’s victory over Portland, the most-watched single-network MLS Cup viewership since 2018.
7. NBA Gives Its Playoffs a Jolt with Play-In Action
Emerging from a season following one that was thrown into flux in 2020, the NBA devised a new look to their playoff format. There would still be eight top seeds in each conference to qualify for the postseason, but the determinations of the 7th and 8th seeds changed. In addition, a mini-tournament that also involved the 9th and 10th seeded teams provided a Wild Card-Esque feel that the NFL, MLB, and college basketball already implement.
Of the six available Play-In games, one was the clear must-see matchup: no. 8 seed Golden State Warriors at no. 7 seed Los Angeles Lakers. It was the first meaningful game between longtime rivals LeBron James and Stephen Curry in three years.
James had previously voiced his dissatisfaction with the new playoff setup. The NBA, on the other hand, could not have been more ecstatic by the monster ratings results from Warriors-Lakers. 5.6 million tuned in on May 19, cable’s top viewer mark for an NBA telecast (excluding playoffs and All-Star Games) since Christmas Day 2011.
6. The Manning Brothers Become NFL’s Newest Star Commentators
Since his retirement, TV networks have vied for Peyton Manning — a popular spokesperson for several products and companies throughout his Hall of Fame career — to join their team as a color analyst.
ESPN had especially eyed him for “Monday Night Football.” In 2021, they finally got him… but not in a conventional capacity: Peyton and his younger brother, fellow two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning as commentators on an alternate “MNF” broadcast for ESPN2.
The ManningCast caused an immediate stir. Its premiere attracted 800,000 viewers; it more than doubled to 1.9 million viewers by week two.
Their eye-opening nuts-and-bolts football talk, along with being joined by celebrities of all types like Charles Barkley, Phil Mickelson, Condoleeza Rice, and David Letterman, delivered much buzz for the casual sports fan. It even birthed a new player curse — the active football stars who made guest appearances on it wound up on the losing end of their subsequent games.
5. MLB Wild Card Sets New Milestones
At the publication time of this list, baseball owners locked out the players amidst negotiating terms for a new financial agreement. Among the ideas proposed during negotiations was an expansion of the MLB postseason to either a 12-team or 14-team format. That would lead to a larger Wild Card round, akin to the best-of-three first-round playoff structure tested out in the fall of 2020. Precipitating these discussions are the recently-agreed-to extended deals with ESPN, TBS, and Fox — the thought being that more playoff games will result in more revenue. Nonetheless, if 2021 was any indication, the higher-ups might be tempted to leave well enough alone.
The starting games of the postseason outdrawing almost every subsequent Division Series and League Championship Series game is nothing new. But in this past year, both single-game Wild Card eliminations achieved significant milestones. Of course, it helped that all four Wild Card participants were familiar teams with big fan bases.
The New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox on Oct. 5 — another chapter in their storied rivalry — averaged 7.69 million viewers across ESPN and ESPN2. It was the best viewer figure recorded by Nielsen Media Research for an MLB game on ESPN platforms since covering Mark McGwire’s now-controversial 61st home run (tying Roger Maris’ mark of 1961) back on Sep. 7, 1998.
On the following night (Oct. 6), the St. Louis Cardinals at Los Angeles Dodgers, which concluded with a walk-off win for LA, averaged 6.67 million viewers. It was the second most-watched MLB Wild Card game in TBS history; only Cubs-Pirates from 2015 had drawn more.
4. NFL Dominates the Holidays
We’ve already mentioned Thanksgiving for the NHL and MLS on this list. But when you think of the holiday, you think of the NFL and “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys. Add into the mix the Raiders who triumphed over the Cowboys in overtime, and, with nearly 38 million viewers, you’ve got the biggest NFL regular-season telecast since the infamous 1993 Thanksgiving Dolphins-Cowboys matchup (the Leon Lett game).
Thanksgiving was not the only holiday the NFL flexed its ratings muscles. The league was the figurative bull in a china shop on Christmas Day, the perennial bastion for the NBA, with its doubleheader of Browns-Packers and Colts-Cardinals. Almost 29 million across Fox and NFL Network saw Green Bay’s close win over Cleveland from Lambeau Field, achieving the second most-watched multi-platform “Thursday Night Football” game on record (only the 3-network telecast of Patriots-Giants in 2007 when New England accomplished an undefeated regular season drew more).
3. Baseball Became a Field of Dreams Once Again
Kevin Costner was one of the biggest movie stars of the ’80s and ’90s. During the past decade, he’s been the king of the small screen from his Emmy-winning turn in the blockbuster miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys” to starring in TV’s No. 1 scripted series, the cable sudser “Yellowstone.” In August 2021, Costner achieved another massive TV audience courtesy of revisiting his 1989 film classic “Field of Dreams.” MLB and the Fox network turned the magic of Hollywood into reality in the small town of Dyersville, Iowa, for a game between the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox.
The backdrop of the cornfields over the outfield wall, the players’ vintage uniforms, and the game concluding with a walk-off home run by the White Sox all combined for a special night to remember. 5.9 million viewers watched the contest, posting the largest amount for an MLB regular-season game on any network since 2005.
2. The Majesty of the Olympics Loses Some of Its TV Luster
The world came together once more in the spirit of competition this past summer in Tokyo, Japan.
The figurative pandemic clouds still hovered over the proceedings, from athletes disqualified by testing positive for the coronavirus to the empty arenas where events like the Opening Ceremony took place. Overall, it was an antiseptic atmosphere that we American sports fans became undesirably accustomed to in the latter half of 2020.
Nonetheless, this was, after all, the Summer Olympics. It has long been a rating juggernaut, and it always outdrew its winter Games.
But those notions got debunked in 2021, having encountered the modern trends of home viewing. We probably should have known an Olympics still labeled as “Tokyo 2020” for marketing purposes was a bad omen for business at the very start.
Relative to what else is airing on TV, the Tokyo Olympics averaging 16 million viewers per night, is a solid achievement. But the Summer Games had never before dipped below 20 million/night, on record. The Sochi Games in Feb. 2018 did 19.8 million, so surely, NBCUniversal would have sold Tokyo as better than that to advertisers. Make-goods to those same advertisers were abounded, as a result.
Just five years earlier from Rio de Janeiro did the Olympics draw 27 million in prime time. The minimal time zone difference was an important aspect to the more robust number — Rio just one hour ahead of Eastern time; Tokyo ahead by 13 hours. But another factor has majorly affected the state of television since 2016. Audiences for linear offerings have massively eroded. Younger generations have sought other entertainment options, especially streaming services. NBC’s Peacock platform was established as a vital centerpiece for its Olympic coverage. Still, the nascent outlet has a long road ahead to be a go-to streaming option like Netflix, Amazon’s Prime Video, Disney+, or even HBO Max.
NBCUniversal may be bracing for another alarming dip for its upcoming Winter Olympics from, of all places, China.
1. Super Bowl Sets Off Domino Effect
The 2020 NFL season was a tumultuous one. The vaccine had yet to be widely available then, and multiple game postponements were a frequent occurrence. However, it all concluded on time, as Super Bowl LV was held on Feb. 7. And as a bonus, it was a battle between newfound superstar Patrick Mahomes and the GOAT himself, Tom Brady, in Brady’s first non-Patriots season of his career. With big names and known teams involved, CBS was bound for phenomenal ratings.
Or so we thought.
The following morning arrived, and no ratings were released. For what is the year’s biggest TV event since the 1970s, it was certainly an oddity that there was no early indication of how the Big Game performed. The longer the absence of such rating news, the presumption that it received not-so-great results had grown. By the morning of Feb. 9, the data was finally published, confirming the previous day’s concerns: the Big Game underwhelmed.
With over 96 million viewers (including almost 6 million on streaming platforms), the Big Game dipped to a 14-year low. It was also the lowest-rated in households since Joe Namath led the Jets to an upset win over the Colts in 1969; and the lowest adults 18-49 delivery since Washington’s win over Buffalo in 1992.
The results set the tone for the TV industry in the weeks and months that followed. NBC — despite its marquee events that were then-upcoming like the Golden Globe Awards, two Olympics, and an NFL season that culminated in their broadcast of the next Super Bowl — joined their public relations brethren of ABC, Fox, and The CW in ceasing publications of daily ratings releases.
And, in an unprecedented move, the Fox network, the broadcast home of Super Bowl LVII in Feb. 2023, began selling commercial time for that Big Game this past year to guard against any potential championship audience declines.
As 2021 came to a close, the NFL not only remained a ratings behemoth but — as noted on this very list — achieved some multi-decade highs. Perhaps the notion of erosion for the country’s biggest sport may be quickly fleeting. For the league and its TV partners, they sure hope those worries are short-lived.
Lastly, an honorary mention:
- Mickelson’s Historic Win Lifts PGA Championship
Phil Mickelson was already among the legendary golfers of the 21st century. Back on May 23, he transcended his career even further by winning the PGA Championship. At the age of 50, he became the oldest to ever win a golf major, beating the previous mark by two years. The tournament’s final round averaged 6.6 million viewers — the largest amount in three years. A peak of 13 million was tuned in to CBS in the moments Mickelson had clinched his win. With the exception of The Masters one month prior, it delivered the largest PGA Tour golf audience since the March 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns.
Note: ratings were tabulated by Nielsen Media Research, and most of their provided context was originally complied and mentioned by Jon Lewis of Sports Media Watch at sportsmediawatch.com.
Douglas Pucci is a Bronx native and NYU graduate analyzing news television ratings for Barrett News Media. He did an internship at VH1’s “Pop Up Video” in 1997. After college, Pucci went on to design, build and maintain websites for various non-profit organizations in his hometown of New York City. He has worked alongside media industry observer Marc Berman for over a decade reporting on all things television, first at Cross MediaWorks from 2011-15 then at Programming Insider since 2016. Pucci also contributed to the sports website Awful Announcing. Read more: https://programminginsider.com/author/douglas/
Telling The Audience What You Think They Want to Hear Won’t Help You Grow
“Calling out each candidate’s positives and negatives isn’t picking one over the other, it’s opining on the news of the day.”
It’s OK to not always tell your audience what you think they want to hear.
I have been writing that phrase down at the top of my notepad before I start my show for the last two weeks. Something tells me I will need it for at least another 12 months.
In the last week alone there have been two major topics that have divided News Talk audiences across the country: The debt-ceiling debate and the brewing Donald Trump vs. Ron DeSantis feud.
And as I’ve listened to talented hosts and perused the social media landscape, I’ve noticed a hesitancy that I usually would not expect.
Granted, for the last two years it’s been relatively easy when talking about the national political scene: Joe Biden is a disaster. Whether it’s economic policy, border policy or foreign policy, most Americans don’t believe the guy is doing a good job. The News Talk audience, generally speaking, thinks he’s doing a terrible job.
That’s shooting fish in a barrel. But now comes the hard(er) work.
Starting with the debt-ceiling drama, there was a big divide amongst Republicans in the House of Representatives. The bill passed with broad bipartisan support, however dozens of Republicans, many of the most conservative members of the House, voted against the bill, saying it did not do enough to cut spending
As a result, it seemed many hosts, who assume their audience blindly aligns with everything the most-conservative members of the House say, were hesitant to point out the obvious: Explain what better deal you were getting when you only had a small majority in the House, and no control over the Senate or the White House?
It was a question I never got a good answer to on my show.
Republicans already picked up a win getting Biden to the negotiating table after he spent months saying he wanted a clean debt-ceiling raise with no spending cuts attached. Speaker Kevin McCarthy won, got some concessions, and slowly began turning the tide towards hopefully Senate and White House victories in 2024, when then the real work can begin on getting spending under control. This was a victory.
And while no one with any levels of fiscal sanity believes our government’s spending isn’t wildly out of control, that is a separate conversation from whether or not this was a good or smart deal.
Then, there’s the Trump vs. DeSantis feud. Some have staked their claim with one candidate over the other. Some are trying to toe the line and avoid all conflict. Neither approach makes sense to me.
The obvious approach seems to me to analyze the candidate’s based on what they do and say on a given day. There will be good and bad days for Trump. DeSantis will have his up and down moments. I can guarantee this because they’re flawed human beings like the rest of us.Like every election season, it will ebb and flow, and eventually someone will come out on top.
Calling out each candidate’s positives and negatives isn’t picking one over the other, it’s opining on the news of the day.
If you compare this to sports talk radio, a national host talking about the NFL Playoffs doesn’t have to have a preferred team, but he or she has to have something to say that’s interesting, compelling, honest, thought-provoking and entertaining.
If they don’t do this, they’ll become wallpaper in a world of too many media options.
If you have the trust of your audience, you’re real, honest, engaging and thoughtful, you won’t lose your audience. You’ll keep them engaged and you’ll grow it.
Pete Mundo is the morning show host and program director for KCMO in Kansas City. Previously, he was a fill-in host nationally on FOX News Radio and CBS Sports Radio, while anchoring for WFAN, WCBS News Radio 880, and Bloomberg Radio. Pete was also the sports and news director for Omni Media Group at K-1O1/Z-92 in Woodward, Oklahoma. He’s also the owner of the Big 12-focused digital media outlet Heartland College Sports. To interact, find him on Twitter @PeteMundo.
Why Did Newsmax Allow Rep. Matt Gaetz to Host An Unchallenged TV Program?
“A sitting politician hosting a show also doesn’t allow for a variety of opinion. It gives them the ability to deceive their audience, delude their constituents and impact lives in the name of lies.”
Representing your constituents in Congress used to be a mark of honor. It was a position that came with pride and respect. At least that’s what I’ve heard from older relatives who lived in an America that was supposedly more united. Today, depending on the individual, the position doesn’t usually come with too much regard if any at all. Congress has an all-time low approval rating and many representatives go into the job plotting their next money-making move in the process.
The cable news circuit has slowly but surely built a bench of potential hosts from current and former Congressmen. Former Congressman Jason Chaffetz is a Fox News commentator, Trey Gowdy is a host on Fox News, Joe Scarborough is MSNBC’s morning show anchor and most recently Rep. Matt Gaetz anchored his own hour for Newsmax. As much as some members of Congress roast young Gen Zers for their tenacity when it comes to TikTok, these men are just as eager for the wrong kind of attention and spotlight.
A former Congressman on television can provide perspective that gives context to current issues the country faces. On Scarborough’s morning show, he often harkens back to past negotiations and talks he had with fellow lawmakers. At times, he even uses those connections to find out the inside scoop about something that’s happening in the moment. Current Congressmen who appear on shows as guests also get to talk directly to their constituents hopefully alongside a host that is willing to challenge them on the issues of the day and not simply allow them to lead the audience astray.
For Newsmax to allow Rep. Gaetz to host a show though, is a disgrace to a medium of television that already like Congress doesn’t have much acclaim. With that being said, even for cable news, this is a major low and it should never happen on either side of the aisle. Politicians are elected to serve but are also forced to make tough decisions. These choices are answerable to the American people. When a Congressman is allowed to spew their thoughts uncensored, it takes attention away from the issues that really matter.
A sitting politician hosting a show also doesn’t allow for a variety of opinion. It gives them the ability to deceive their audience, delude their constituents and impact lives in the name of lies. Unless Gaetz had a co-host that was a journalist questioning his takes, how does an unchallenged show truly serve the public – an oath he agreed to partake in when he took on his role as a Congressman.
Gaetz’s appearance is also a waste of tax dollars. The people of Florida who elected him into office expect Gaetz to be working with fellow lawmakers to make their lives better. They expect him to be doing research or reading up on bills that can bring the change he’s promised to his voters. Instead, he used the resources of hard-working Floridians to moonlight into his next career and spew misinformation that can prove harmful to the public.
If we allow more serving Congressmen to host their own cable talk shows on such a widely distributed platform, will we reach a day when lawmakers exclusively negotiate bills on television? Will Congressmen be more worried about ratings than results? We’ve already seen what happens when a President reigns over a populous and only rules based on what he sees on television. We’ve also seen the political implications that come with such unjustly behavior. Cable news networks will suffer the moral consequences of their actions while politicians who dare to try this act again will eventually face the demise of their legacy in the voting booth. Be careful.
Jessie Karangu is a weekly columnist for BNM, and graduate of the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland but comes from Kenyan roots. Jessie has had a passion for news and sports media and the world of television since he was a child. His career has included stints with USA Today, Tegna, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Sightline Media. He also previously wrote a weekly column for our sports media brand, Barrett Sports Media. Jessie can be found on Twitter @JMKTVShow.
Sales Productivity Protects You From Hedge Fund Uncertainty
“The good news is that most radio station clusters are still very profitable. The bad news, the debt makes many clusters unprofitable.”
Almost 30 years ago, Radio station ownership limits were lifted, and Wall Street saw an opportunity. But the hedge funds didn’t understand the business and created mayhem in a still vital industry.
I worked in New York City for over 6 years. I had the opportunity to spend time around the brain trust of Wall Street. These Masters of the Universe saw the weakness of the radio industry and thought that they had all the answers.
Well, they didn’t.
I will give you some history from my perspective. My first 16 years were spent working for family run operations. Both of these companies were managed by third generation operators who put people and community first. These were highly successful operations with large staffs.
I am not looking back with rose colored glasses. No organization is perfect or without unique challenges. But people were first in these broadcast companies. Both of my first employers had top consultants to give strong outside the organization feedback. Both companies had General Managers that catered to both the programming and sales departments.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the biggest overhaul of telecommunications law in 62 years. It was widely thought that this would bring radio into modern times. Consolidation has been a landmark of American Business, so, Wall Street’s Hedge Funds saw an opening. Radio station owners sold for insane profits. Longtime owners were able to sell stations for multiples of up to 30 times meaning that if an owner had a station earning 1 million dollars, they could sell it for 30 million dollars. Quite a return (Most stations didn’t go that high but multiples of 18-25 were very common during this period).
Wall Street looked at radio like the pickle industry. Except there was an issue. Radio did not have hundreds of workers in each location. You couldn’t move all operations to a central hub and save HUGE money, that would justify strong ROI. So, radio ended up with several large owners (by the way, I am not criticizing iHeart, Audacy, Cumulus and the other large owners).
When larger companies developed, they went public selling stock to individual shareholders and institutional investors. The market states that companies show a certain amount of revenue growth per year. Let’s say that number is 10%. Radio is interesting, we are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. You cannot just build new radio stations. So, companies were forced to merge or expand to meet revenue goals. Wall Street encouraged and even demanded it.
Here was the problem – radio companies acquired an unsupportable amount of debt that could never be paid back. The Hedge Funds just moved cash around and demanded companies cut staff and consolidate management. It was a blood bath. Any of us who entered this business in the 90’s saw this. Great broadcasters, salespeople, managers were forced out because of unsustainable debt and micromanaging Hedge Funds.
On the local level, new clusters were forced to protect the biggest biller in the group. This was not set to grow revenue; it was to protect the revenue and keep the spreadsheets looking right. I know of stations that were more successful brands in ratings in a cluster than the cash cow but if you were the Program Director who was consistently beating the cash cow, your job was in jeopardy. This was a reverse hunger games caused by debt, fear and shortsightedness.
So, here we are.
The good news is that most radio station clusters are still very profitable.
The bad news, the debt makes many clusters unprofitable.
Even though a couple of the bigger companies have gone bankrupt, they’re not bankruptcy situations where assets were liquidated creating a market-based value of these properties. It was essentially a negotiation to lower the debt, and did not move these companies to become cash positive operations again.
Why do the Hedge Funds not cut their losses and move on? Now that is a great question. Hedge funds handle billions of dollars. They bundle bad deals with great deals and so their investors don’t seem to have a problem if they see enough of a profit at the end of the month, quarter or year. People remember the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008. Hedge Funds were bundling bad mortgages with good ones. Soon the bad overcame the market. Thus, a crash. The homes never went away. The value of real estate fell dramatically in many places.
Are people still listening to us? 80% of Americans do. Not the 93% of a decade or so ago (Pew Research). This is much better than local TV where only 63% of Americans watch local TV News.
But what is the future?
It is entirely up to Hedge Fund involvement. Will Hedge Funds cut their losses and move on? If that occurs, will local broadcasters rise again?
What can YOU do?
It is all about the billing. If you are billing a lot more than you cost, the company will need you, and indispensability is what corporate leaders will see. Make yourself available for Sales. If you are the morning talent, be dressed well enough for a sales call. Make yourself available a few times each week to meet clients. Let salespeople know about the products and services that you use. Radio personalities are influencers. They have huge audiences that listen every day. Don’t forget your advantage. We cannot control the Hedge Funds, corporate debt or a fast-changing marketplace.
This was not an exhaustive history, but it illustrates our challenges. Radio programming departments are filled with creative people who just want to entertain. Be aware of our weaknesses and strengths. The Market Manager and sales manager are under huge pressure. Be that person who understands their concerns.
Peter Wilkinson Thiele is a weekly columnist for Barrett News Media. He currently serves as the program director, and morning host of Newstalk KZRG in Joplin, MO. Additionally, Peter has held programming roles in New York City, San Francisco, Little Rock, Greenville and Hunstville. He has also worked as a host, account executive and producer in Minneapolis, and San Antonio. You can reach him on Twitter at @PeterThiele.