Sports on TV: Will the World Series audience rebound? Here’s what the experts think (2024)

Once it was evident the pandemic was going to siphon live sports TV viewership last year, the major events became a flock of canaries in many coal mines to signal what people were or were not watching, and the experts tried to make sense of it.

In 2020, we didn’t watch big sports events as much as we used to, and some were canceled outright while others got kicked around the calendar to be played far from their normal slots — and usually without fans.


Even the Super Bowl this past February was down. But in 2021, we started to come back to our TVs and streaming devices, the schedules normalized, and fans returned to ballparks and arenas.

Now, all eyes are on the World Series. Is the Atlanta Braves-Houston Astros all-Southern Fall Classic going to beat last season’s record-low 9.79 million viewer average for the six-game Los Angeles Dodgers-Tampa Bay Rays series?

Odds are, yes. Will it top the second least-watched series, the 2012 San Francisco Giants-Detroit Tigers matchup that averaged 12.66 million?

That remains to be seen. While viewers are returning to live sports, even as overall television usage is down, the cord-cutting trend remains an issue that hasn’t been offset by the rise of streaming or the inclusion since 2020 of out-of-home viewership metrics. At least not yet.

A couple of veteran sports TV experts provided their World Series viewership estimates, and both note that a longer series, particularly with a thrilling Game 7, ramps up the audience numbers.

Jon Lewis, who’s been crunching live sports viewership since 2006 at Sports Media Watch, predicts an overall 11.5 million average for this World Series, with it going five games.

“I think it will take six or seven (games) to get to the 12 million mark. This series sounds more like an NLDS than a World Series, but it can overcome that if the games are good (like Astros-Dodgers did four years ago),” Lewis said.

Patrick Crakes, a television industry analyst and former Fox Sports executive, was more optimistic about the World Series audience.

“I’m seeing a seven-game series, which is meaningful as with the World Series any viewing prediction has to be tied to whether Games 5, 6 and 7 actually happen,” he said. “For 2021, a seven-game series should help compensate for the regional nature and the average national appeal of an Astros-Braves matchup.”

He predicts a 13.1-million viewer average for the full World Series.

“Expect the World Series to continue its usual position as a top 10 primetime show for the week on viewers and all key demos,” Crakes said. “Importantly, a seven-game series (even a six-game series) should end up making things profitable for Fox as Games 6 and 7 are typically not planned for economically, for obvious reasons.”

Fox and MLB almost got a Boston-Los Angeles series, which likely would have generated more eyeballs because they’re larger markets, but the Braves and Astros have strong fanbases, too.

Whatever the World Series averages, it will serve as a reminder that the National Pastime remains in the long TV shadow of the National Football League, whose regular-season games average more than 16 million per telecast, and then top 40 million for Thanksgiving games and conference title games (plus around 100 million for the Super Bowl).

That’s partially a function of inventory. MLB teams have 162-game schedules. NFL teams play just 17 in the regular season.

The last time baseball got an NFL playoff-like audience number was Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, which averaged nearly 41 million TV and streaming viewers. And that audience was enormous because of a significant storyline: Either the Chicago Cubs or Cleveland were going to end long championship droughts.

Before that, the last World Series game to top even 30 million viewers was Game 7 of 2002’s Angles-Giants series. Anaheim winning averaged 30.88 million (which was pre-streaming and pre-OOH metrics).

Before 2016, a World Series game hadn’t hit 40 million viewers since Game 6 of the 1991 Twins-Braves series, a contest that averaged 40.8 million for CBS, per Sports Media Watch’s database.

Game 7 of that series averaged 50.3 million who watched the Twins’ Gene Larkin single to deep left to score Dan Gladden in the bottom of the 10th to win it all.


The most-watched World Series game of all time? The Philadelphia Phillies’ title-clinching Game 6 victory in 1980 over the Kansas City Royals, which averaged 54.86 million viewers.

Those were the days before cable was as widespread as it came to be, the internet was a government project few had heard of, and streaming and social media did not exist (which, in retrospect, was a true golden age, if you ask me).

Fox pays MLB a reported $525 million a year under a deal that ends after this season, and then increases to $729 million a season through 2028 for its broadcast rights package that includes the World Series. The network has exclusively been the broadcast home of the World Series since 2000.

NFL: Week 7 was the big bye week, with six teams off. That included the Cowboys, Bills, Steelers and Chargers. Also off were the Vikings and Jaguars. The Cowboys have been a major draw this season, so having them and other contenders sidelined siphons some overall viewership.

The week, only the Ravens and Raiders are on a bye.

After reaching 1.8 million viewers in Week 3, Peyton and Eli Manning’s ESPN2 alternative broadcast of “Monday Night Football” — nicknamed the ManningCast — returned this week and averaged just over 1.6 million viewers after the hiatus. Quarterly guests included Tom Brady, Sue Bird and Drew Brees.

Oh, and Marshawn Lynch was a guest and used his time to drop some F- and S-bombs, make Peyton uncomfortable with a Papa John’s mention, talk about taking three shots of Henny before the broadcast. In other worse, he was his fantastic unvarnished self, and Twitter showed its love.

Marshawn Lynch just logged onto national television with a sideways camera, while eating a snack, said "what's up big dogs" and then told them he took three shots of Hennessy before the game.

Beast Mode is a national treasure

— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) October 26, 2021

"I took one for me, I took one for big bruh and I took one for little bruh."

Before Marshawn Lynch hopped on the ManningCast, he took a Henny shot for Peyton and Eli.

🎥 @espn

— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) October 26, 2021

The ManningCast proved to be a nice tonic to an otherwise dull game, a 13-10 Saints win in rainy Seattle.

In other games, CBS owned Sunday’s late afternoon national window with a 17.75 million viewer average. That window was mostly the Bears getting manhandled at Tampa Bay and Tom Brady throwing his 600th touchdown. The network’s other 4:25 p.m. game was the Houston Texans at the undefeated Arizona Cardinals — who are now 7-0 for the first time since 1974.


In the 1 p.m. regional window, CBS averaged 15.14 million viewers (mostly Chiefs-Titans) while Fox’s 1 p.m. window was slightly ahead at 15.73 million for its three games (mostly WFT at the Green Bay Packers).

Last Thursday’s injury bowl that was the Denver Broncos-Cleveland Browns national telecast averaged 12.99 million across Fox and the NFL Network. That doesn’t include the Amazon Prime Video streaming numbers.

NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” broadcast between San Francisco and Indianapolis delivered SNF’s smallest audience this season, albeit one that dominated everything else on TV and won the key demos.

Here’s the “Sunday Night Football” viewership so far this season:

  • Week 1: Bears-Rams, 17.64 million
  • Week 2: Chiefs-Ravens, 19.81 million
  • Week 3: Packers-49ers, 19.69 million
  • Week 4: Buccaneers-Patriots, 26.75 million
  • Week 5: Bills-Chiefs, 18.4 million
  • Week 6: Seahawks-Steelers, 17.2 million
  • Week 7: Colts-49ers, 16.9 million

This week’s schedule has some potential gems, starting with the 6-1 Packers at the unbeaten Cardinals at 8:20 p.m. Thursday. Sunday’s 1 p.m. window is highlighted by an AFC North rivalry clash between the 3-3 Pittsburgh Steelers and the 4-3 Browns on CBS.

The afternoon slate isn’t as sexy. The two compelling matchups are the 6-1 Buccaneers at the 4-2 New Orleans Saints at 4:25 p.m. on Fox. NBC has the 5-1 Cowboys at the 3-3 Minnesota Vikings at 8:20 p.m. on Sunday night.

ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” telecast is the 2-5 New York Giants at the 3-4 Kansas City Chiefs, and with the latter a mess, it may not deliver beyond an average audience for MNF.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Both “Big Noon Kickoff” on Fox and “College GameDay” on ESPN will air live from East Lansing ahead of No. 8 Michigan State hosting No. 6 Michigan. The in-state rivals are both 7-0 and meet for the first time since 1964 while both ranked in the top 10. The noon game is on Fox.

Only one college game was over four million viewers this week. The games of note:

  • No. 4 Alabama blowing out unranked Tennessee, 52-24, averaged 4.67 million in primetime for ESPN.
  • No. 10 Oregon edging unraked UCLA, 34-31, in the late afternoon averaged 3.84 million on ABC.
  • Unranked Illinois upsetting No. 7 Penn State in nine overtimes averaged 3.76 million for ABC’s noon broadcast.
  • No. 5 Ohio State routing host Indiana, 54-7, averaged 3.34 million in primetime for ABC.
  • No. 13 Notre Dame handling longtime rival USC, 31-16, averaged 2.88 million for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff for NBC.

Some of the other top games with big viewership potential this week include No. 1 Georgia versus Florida (3:30 p.m., CBS, played at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville); No. 10 Ole Miss at No. 18 Auburn (7 p.m., ESPN); and No. 20 Penn State at No. 5 Ohio State (7:30 p.m., ABC).

NBA: The NBA opened its 75th season last Tuesday with a marquee doubleheader on TNT. The Nets-Bucks game averaged 2.16 million viewers, which was the lowest opener audience since 2.05 million for Rockets-Lakers in 2007, per Sports Media Watch. In the late game, the Warriors-Lakers game averaged 3.39 million viewers — up from 2020’s pandemic-delayed December opener that averaged 3.08 million but down from Lakers-Clippers (3.58 million) in October 2019.


Last Wednesday, ESPN’s Celtics-Knicks and Nuggets-Suns doubleheader averaged 1.74 million viewers, which Sports Media Watch said is the network’s most-watched season-opening doubleheader in four years. Celtics-Knicks averaged 1.96 million on its own and was ESPN’s best season-debut game since 2.45 million for Heat-Nets in 2013. The Nuggets-Suns nightcap averaged 1.37 million.

SOCCER: Mohamed Salah’s hat trick propelled Liverpool to a 5-0 rout of Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United at Old Trafford that averaged 706,000 for NBCSN in a Premier League match that kicked off at 11:30 a.m. ET.

(Note: All data is Nielsen and Adobe Analytics metrics via the TV networks, Sports Media Watch, Showbuzz Daily, and the leagues.)

(Photo: Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)

Sports on TV: Will the World Series audience rebound? Here’s what the experts think (2024)


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