The premier sporting event of the last four weeks was not a live game, or even a replay of one. No, it was the release of ESPN's highly-anticipated Michael Jordan documentary, The Last Dance. Sunday evening's main event delivered on the hype, but the ratings even more so. In a press release Monday, ESPN announced The Last Dance exceeded the network's previous viewership high for original content by a substantial number, and the two episodes that aired averaged 6.1 million viewers between ESPN and ESPN2.
This is obviously great news for ESPN, but it also should have executives from ESPN, NFL Network, and ABC salivating over the viewership potential of Thursday's NFL Draft. Last year, the three broadcast networks averaged 6.1 million viewers over the three days of drafting. The first night of the draft, where all the big-name players are taken and interest is highest, totaled a hair over 11 million viewers, which was actually down slightly from 2019. But the viewership for the second and third days of the draft were the highest recorded since it moved to three days a decade ago.
By virtue of being the country's top sport by a long shot, the NFL draft is an automatic viewership draw already. But The Last Dance ratings showed that everyone misses sports in a big way. Michael Jordan is a mythical figure and the documentary will be chock-full of novel information and never-seen footage, but it remains just that: a documentary. The draft isn't quite the dose of live sports we're all yearning for, but it's by far the closest thing we'll get in the immediate future outside of choppy YouTube streams of overseas baseball games.
If 11 million people watched it when everything was normal last year, how many more will tune in out of a desire for sports content and a lack of other options for what to do that night? Could it reach 15 or 16 million? I wouldn't consider that out of the realm of possibility at all. The second and third days get into the weeds as far as prospects go for even the most passionate football fans, so expectations should remain tempered there. But a substantial increase in every viewership metric is possible.
Right now, it feels like everyone, not just your hardcore sports fans, want something to rally around. Thursday night may very well prove that. The first round, at the very least, is enough of a draw for your casual sports fan that they'll tune in, even if it's only for the first 10 picks. And that's in times when it's business as usual. It's anything but as of now.
The sky feels like the limit for ESPN, NFL Network, and ABC this week.