The TV ratings for “The Last Dance” do not matter to your life


Image Credit: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Update 4/20/2020: Welp, Part 1 averaged 6.3 million across ESPN & ESPN2. At least I was right about Chicago.

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The headline here is a riff on The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis shaking his head whenever Joe the plumber from Secaucus and his ilk are ratings-obsessed and weigh-in on how thrilled TV execs must be about things like Tiger Woods competing for a win on Sunday. Why does Joe the plumber from Secaucus care?

A mystery I can happily live with but still a mystery…

I’ve been counting my lucky stars about many things recently and hadn’t spent much time considering how lucky I am that when people disagree with me the worst it usually gets is “You’re wrong, idiot!” I’m grateful I don’t have to deal with nonsense on the level of “get back in the kitchen” simply because someone disagrees with me.

I’m OK with people disagreeing with me and I’m especially OK when it is regarding things that don’t matter to your life or mine like the TV ratings for ESPN’s Michael Jordan/Bulls documentary that premieres tonight.

A lot of people disagree with my take that the premiere telecast of the first episode (two episodes will air tonight) on ESPN will average fewer than 3 million viewers.

What do I mean?

I mean that I think the average viewership for the premiere telecast of the first episode of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” as measured by Nielsen will be under 3 million viewers. The number will include any linear viewing by Nielsen panelists and any DVR viewing by Nielsen panelists up to 3AM Monday morning. It will also include any viewing by Nielsen panelists via connected devices like Roku and Apple TV because ESPN subscribes to the Nielsen service that includes such measurement in the Live + Same Day national numbers.

It will not include viewing via computers or smartphones because although ESPN does subscribe to the Nielsen service that measures that, Nielsen doesn’t yet calculate those numbers as quickly as the others. Nor will the Nielsen numbers include any international Netflix viewing.

Things are much different in 2020 than in 2012

In December 2012, the ESPN 30 for 30 “You Don’t Know Bo” averaged 3.6 million viewers and had the benefit of The Heisman Trophy Presentation as its lead in the year Johnny Manziel won the Heisman.

That trophy presentation averaged 4.9 million viewers and “The Last Dance” will definitely not have the benefit of that sort of lead-in.

ESPN is also available in around 15 million fewer homes in April 2020 than it was in December 2012.

People are much more habituated to watching things on their own schedule now than they were in 2012 and on top of that “The Last Dance” is a ten-episode documentary that will air over five Sundays. In 2020 there are more people who’ll decide to wait for multiple/all episodes to be available and then binge it than there were in 2012.


I agree people are starved for sports and if you could magically put on a real NFL game or a real Alabama versus LSU college football game on in mid-April the ratings would be amazing!

While the relative success of NASCAR’s iRacing is a great story for NASCAR, from a ratings perspective it hasn’t been any amazing “wow, they’re all coming here!” thing. They’re not all going to professional wrestling either, the most-recent Monday of WWE RAW on USA was down 28% versus the same Monday a year ago.


I can’t rule out a crazy high rating in Chicago, but for me a crazy high rating in Chicago would be like 10% to 15% of Chicago households tuning in on average. By comparison, per Phil Rosenthal, the 8-8 Bears averaged a 26.2 household rating locally in Chicago for the 2019 season. If the first part of the documentary tops that in Chicago it will be a hell of a story.

Everyone on Twitter is talking about it though!

Sometimes making predictions based on “What you see is all there is” works out, but I’d still strongly recommend against it when making predictions. At least in my Twitter timeline everyone was talking about ESPN’s encore presentation of the Texas/USC Rose Bowl and that went on to average 371,000 viewers.

Of course I think the Jordan documentary will crush that. I think the timing is great for ESPN and that they’ve done a good job marketing the documentary, but I try to avoid having my TV ratings predictions swayed by what I see on Twitter.

What’s a great number for ESPN?

I don’t know what ESPN’s expectations are but my opinion is that anything around 3 million would be great for ESPN and anything around 2 million would still be a big win. Part 1 of the Vick 30 for 30 on 1/30/20 averaged 941,000 in the Live + Same Day nationals.

My confidence is such where I’d definitely bet $100 on under 3 million viewers but I’m not so confident I’d throw $10,000 at it. I won’t be shocked if it tops 3 million, just surprised.


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