It's time for my third annual lining up of all the major sports' championship ratings! I'll also examine some of the regularly scheduled sports programs.
Here are the previous two editions of the Definitive Sports TV Ratings Post: 2010 | 2011
Let's start with the regularly-scheduled franchises:
- NBC's Sunday Night Football (NFL) averaged a 8.36 demo and 21.39 million total viewers in 18 telecasts last year, including a special Thursday premiere and a game on each Sunday of the 17-week regular season. As usual, the biggest games were early in the season, with the Saints/Packers premiere (10.9) topping the list. The demo average was up 1% year-to-year and easily outshone any entertainment program on TV.
- ABC's Saturday Night Football (College) averaged a 2.23 demo and 6.70 million total viewers in twelve 2011 telecasts. That was up a pretty impressive 11% from last year's average. Four of the twelve games did better than any of the 2010 games. The top game of the season was USC's upset over Oregon, which averaged a 3.4 on November 19.
- The biggest regular sports telecast on cable is ESPN's Monday Night Football (NFL), which averaged a 5.38 demo and 13.22 million total viewers in 17 telecasts last year. That was down about 8% from last year's demo average, pretty atypical behavior for the NFL. ESPN's responding by cutting down to a two-man booth (Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden) next season and hoping for a lot fewer stinker matchups. The highest rated game of the season was Cowboys/Redskins (7.2) on 9/26/11.
- I'm adding the NFL Network's Thursday Night Football this year. It averaged a 2.49 demo and 6.30 million viewers in its seven telecasts this year and peaked with a 4.1 demo for the Ravens/49ers on Thanksgiving. I don't have some of the 2010 numbers, but an NFL Network release said the franchise was up 8% in total viewership year-to-year. Next year, the Thursday Night Football package on NFL Network expands to 13 total telecasts (but loses the Thanksgiving primetime game to NBC).
- I'm also adding Fox's Baseball Night in America on Saturday nights. The mostly regional baseball coverage is averaging a 0.75 demo through six telecasts so far. This is significantly weaker than the 1.07 average for three regular season baseball telecasts in 2011. There are a couple more of these upcoming before Fox turns Saturday over to Cops and Mobbed in July.
As always, one of the best ways to compare the major sports' performance is at championship time, because all the championships air either in broadcast primetime or on high-profile ESPN. Here's my yearly chart lining up everything but the NFL at the end of the season:
NBA (pro basketball): The NBA with its best-of-seven Finals was once again pretty clearly the strongest of the non-NFL leagues, and it owes a lot of that to getting pretty close to a dream matchup with the Heat and the Thunder. The downside for the NBA was that the series ended in just five games and with a total blowout in the elimination game, which seriously inhibited the league's ability to hit the ratings heights of the last two Finals. The non-decisive games were generally up 5-10% year-to-year. For more: NBA Finals Ratings, 2006-12
College basketball: As always, the above data points are the two regional finals in primetime, the two Final Four games (national semifinals) and the championship. With one major exception (the second regional final), these games were like the NBA slightly up year-to-year. The Kentucky/Kansas championship game (7.6) was up 7% on last year's UConn/Butler and pulled an identical rating to that of the NBA's decisive game.
College football: The above points are the BCS (in order: Rose Bowl/Fiesta Bowl/Sugar Bowl/Orange Bowl) and then the BCS National Championship game. Since these games aren't "serialized," there is not the natural build seen in other series. They did well with their January 2 Rose Bowl/Fiesta Bowl pair (bumped from their usual January 1 date since New Year's Day was an NFL Sunday), but the Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl were both hugely down year-to-year, and the LSU/Alabama title game (8.7) was down double digits from last year's 10.1. University presidents have approved a new format starting in 2014 that will create two national semifinal games.
Major League Baseball: This year's best-of-seven World Series was a highly good news/bad news situation. Bad: Cardinals/Rangers was not exactly the optimal matchup. In the eligible non-elimination comparisons, the Series was approximately even year-to-year with 2010's Giants/Rangers. Good: The series lasted the full seven games and included Game 6, arguably the most thrilling game of baseball ever. Bad: Rain delays pushed the decisive Game 7 to a Friday night and probably hurt its ratings to some extent. The 7.4 rating for Game 7 was about the same as those of the final games in the NBA and college basketball. For more: World Series Ratings, 2007-11
National Hockey League: There are probably other sports that deserve inclusion in this post over the NHL. Not only did the NHL stay miles behind the other major sports, but it had a horrible year even in the context of its previous ratings. The first five games of this year's Kings/Devils series were all down double digits year-to-year, and four of those five were down more than 25%! The first three NBC telecasts (Games 1, 2 and 5) got the same rating as the Finals posted last year in its telecasts on the lesser-reaching NBC Sports Network! The matchup may not have been great, but probably the lion's share of the blame goes to facing the NBA Playoffs, which is not typically the case at this stage. The decisive sixth game (2.0), finally free of the NBA, got up to ratings comparable to the year-ago series.
National Football League: Not included, as always, because it'd scrunch the above chart down into a tiny and incomprehensible mess. The NFL continues to outshine all the rest by miles. Like with Sunday Night Football, the divisional and conference championship rounds of the postseason were even to a little up year-to-year. And the Super Bowl set yet another new American TV viewership record as 111.35 million viewers tuned in. The 40.5 demo rating was over 4.5 times the next biggest decisive game number in American sports and the highest Super Bowl demo in 15 years. It was up by 2% on last year's 39.9. Here's some 1999 to 2011 Super Bowl info.
Here's a year-to-year chart by game. I don't include the NFL (since demo info is not available for some of the out-of-primetime games), and in the case of the best-of-seven series (NBA, MLB, NHL) I only include games that were non-decisive in both years, as I think those are the best ways to gauge what a series is "truly" doing independent from the length of the series.
I went over some of this above, but just to recap: NBA and (mostly) college bball slightly up, MLB and the not-pictured NFL about even, NHL and (mostly) college football significantly down.