Since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports in early March, sports broadcasters have been scrambling to fill airtime with programing that entices viewers to tune-in. One production fans literally campaigned to be released early is ESPN's documentary about Michael Jordan and the Bulls dynasty of the 1990s titled "The Last Dance." They got their wish, with ESPN moving up the release to this Sunday from the original date in June.
With so many eyes expected to be tuned into "The Last Dance," it will be hard to capture fan's attention with sports programing elsewhere. CBS is taking on the challenge by pitting Tom Brady and Peyton Manning against Jordan, airing the Colts epic comeback against the Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship tonight at 8 p.m. EST and the 2015 AFC Championship, which the Broncos won over the Pats, at 10 p.m. "The Last Dance" debuts at 9 p.m. EST.
It's a bold move by CBS, considering it can only air this game once, but also a calculated one. Brady and Manning's matchups drove high ratings for CBS for over a decade, with the 2013 AFC Championship game generating 53.3 million viewers and the 2006 AFC Championship driving 46.7 million viewers, according to Sports Media Watch. Overall, their last four AFC Championship games averaged 47.8 million viewers.
Of course, this is a replay and the "The Last Dance" is original, so you can expect ratings for ESPN to be higher. But the fact that CBS is airing such a premiere game against it shows that it at least wants to compete. It clearly knows the only way to do so is by broadcasting its two biggest names playing the most popular sport in America at the same time ESPN airs its most anticipated documentary of all time.
In Jordan's heyday, he was the king of ratings. In his final game with the Bulls, Game 6 of the 1998 Finals against the Jazz, NBC pulled in 35.9 million viewers. The average viewership for the last three finals Jordan played in was over 25 million viewers per game. The highest average viewership for the last 10 NBA Finals was 2017 between the Warriors and Cavs, which had 20.4 million viewers. Clearly, Jordan moved the needle.
We never got to see these three ratings giants duke it out in real time and we won't get a fair indication of who would drive more now based on this exercise. But it will be interesting to see if Brady-Manning can compete with Jordan even when the odds are stacked in Jordan's favor.