Ratings Roundup: WNBA on ESPN Earns Most-Watched Opener in Eight Years; CBS Sees Highest-Rated NWSL Match in History

Ratings roundup is a rundown of rating news from the past week and is derived from press releases and reports around the industry. In this week’s edition, the WNBA got off to a hot start on ESPN, the NWSL concluded their bubble season with the highest-rated match in league history, NBC Sports’ Premier League coverage hits new high in four years, MLB Opening Day on ESPN reaches the largest audience ever, and much more.

WNBA Generates Most-Watched Opener Since 2012
ESPN’s WNBA opening weekend coverage (July 25 and 26) tipped the season off strong with Saturday’s opener between the Los Angeles Sparks and Phoenix Mercury on ABC, becoming the league’s most-watched opener on the ESPN family of networks since 2012 (average of 539,000 viewers). ESPN’s four-game opening slate averaged 401,000 viewers across ESPN and ABC, up 63% over the 2019 WNBA regular season average on ESPN’s Networks.

In addition to achieving a multi-year high, ABC’s viewership for Saturday’s Los Angeles Sparks vs. Phoenix Mercury match-up (3 p.m. ET) was up 19% from last year’s season opener on ABC. The game peaked during the 3:45-4 p.m. quarter hour at 617,000 viewers and saw its strongest numbers in the following markets:

  • West Palm Beach (1.3)
  • Atlanta, Kansas City & Tulsa (1.0)
  • Norfolk-Portsmouth-Newport News & Phoenix (.9)

ABC’s Sunday telecast between the Chicago Sky and the Las Vegas Aces (3 p.m.) averaged 433,000 viewers; the close game led to a peak audience of as 646,000 viewers watched in the final five minutes of the Sky’s victory (5:15-5:20 p.m.).

ESPN’s Saturday telecast between the Seattle Storm and New York Liberty (noon) averaged 419,000 viewers, making it the most watched season opener on ESPN since 2016. The game peaked in the 12:30-12:45 p.m. quarter hour with 526,000 viewers. Top performing markets include:

  • Seattle-Tacoma (1.2)
  • Jacksonville- N. Brunswick (1)
  • Birmingham (.9)

Sunday’s match-up between the Connecticut Sun and the Minnesota Lynx on ESPN averaged 202,000 viewers.

NWSL Final Becomes Highest-Rated Match in League History
According to SportsMediaWatch, Sunday’s Houston-Chicago NWSL Challenge Cup final averaged a 0.44 rating and 653,000 viewers on CBS, marking the highest rated and most-watched telecast in league history. The previous high was set by the tournament opener on CBS last month, which averaged a 0.37 and 572,000. Prior to this year, no NWSL match had ever exceeded 190,000 viewers.

Compared to last year’s NWSL final, which aired on ESPN on an NFL Sunday, viewership jumped 293% from 166,000.

Only one MLS match all season has averaged a larger audience than Sunday’s final, Nashville-Atlanta on the opening weekend of play in February (756K).

For the weekend, Houston-Chicago ranked second among soccer broadcasts behind the Manchester United-Leicester City English Premier League “Championship Sunday” match on NBC (0.50, 750K).

Premier League Hits New High on NBC
NBC Sports’ presentation of the longest Premier League season ever – spanning 352 days due to the coronavirus pandemic – concluded this past Sunday, July 26 as the most-watched Premier League season in four years, according to official national data provided by Nielsen and digital data from Adobe Analytics.

NBC Sports Group averaged a Total Audience Delivery of 462,000 viewers per match window for the 2019-20 season – marking the highest average Premier League viewership since 2015-16, and up 1% from last year (457,000) (does not include Spanish-language telecasts or NBC Sports Gold/Peacock streaming). Prior to the shutdown in mid-March, viewership was pacing 4% ahead of last season.

The five Championship Sunday matches on television registered a combined Total Audience Delivery of 1.7 million viewers (does not include the five matches streamed on NBC Sports Gold/Peacock).

Premier League Viewership Highlights include:

  • Manchester United’s 2-0 win over Manchester City on Sunday, March 8 posted a Total Audience Delivery (TAD) average of 1.76 million viewers across all platforms – NBC, NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app, and Telemundo – to rank as the most-watched live Premier League match in U.S. history.
  • NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app delivered 925.3 million live streaming minutes – the most all time – during the 2019-20 season. In addition, four of the 10 most-streamed Premier League matches of all time in the U.S. took place in 2019-20.
  • NBCSN registered a Total Audience Delivery average of 1.01 million viewers for the Aug. 11 Manchester United-Chelsea match – ranking as the most-watched opening weekend Premier League cable match ever in the U.S. and the most-watched cable match in four years.
  • New Year’s Day Premier League coverage set viewership milestones on NBCSN as Arsenal-Manchester United became NBCSN’s most-watched weekday match ever (721,000 viewers). NBCSN also delivered the most-watched New Year’s Day Premier League coverage ever, averaging 492,000 viewers across four matches.
  • NBCSN’s weekday afternoon matches during the Premier League’s Project Restart averaged 315,000 viewers – up 32% from weekday matches this season prior to the March shutdown (239,000), and 45% above the full 2018-19 season weekday afternoon average. In addition, since June 17, NBCSN televised four of the six most-watched weekday Premier League matches since 2014 (excluding holidays).
  • Premier League highlights on NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app, and the NBC Sports channel on YouTube, and NBC Sports Soccer content across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook this season generated more than 200 million views – doubling last season’s total. In addition, downloads of The 2 Robbies podcast in 2020 increased 57% from last year, and from July 20-26, NBC Sports’ Pro Soccer Talk delivered its highest weekly traffic in four years.
  • Since kicking off its Premier League coverage in August 2013, NBC Sports Group has televised 18 of the 20 most-watched live Premier League matches ever in the U.S. across all platforms.
  • The free-to-play game Premier League Pick ‘Em continued to help grow the NBC Sports Predictor app userbase to more than 1.1 million fans, who have made over 14 million contest entries since the platform’s launch in December 2018.

Following are the U.S. TV markets with the highest average season-long ratings on Premier League telecasts on NBC/NBCSN, and NBC only (note: all NBC games, other than on “Championship Sunday,” started at 12:30 pm ET/9:30 am PT or later, while some NBCSN games kicked off as early as 7 am ET/4 am PT):

Top 15 Local Market Ratings, NBC/NBCSN

  1. Washington, D.C.
  2. Philadelphia
  3. Tampa
  4. Seattle
  5. Baltimore
  6. New York
  7. Cincinnati
  8. San Francisco
  9. Richmond
  10.  San Diego
  11. Portland
  12.  Hartford
  13. West Palm Beach
  14. Las Vegas
  15. Fort Myers

MLB Opening Day Breaks ESPN Ratings Records
ESPN’s exclusive coverage of Thursday night’s New York Yankees vs. the defending World Series Champion Washington Nationals game generated a record average audience of 4,000,000 viewers for a Major League Baseball Opening Night game telecast, according to Fast Nationals from Nielsen. The telecast is the most-watched regular season MLB game on any network since 2011.

ESPN’s record audience for the Yankees vs. Nationals game was up eight percent from the previous Opening Night record set by ESPN’s St. Louis Cardinals vs. Chicago Cubs game on Opening Night in 2017, which drew 3,700,000 viewers. Last night’s telecast was also up 232 percent from last year’s Opening Night telecast between the Boston Red Sox and Seattle Mariners, which drew 1,200,000 viewers. The Yankees vs. Nationals ESPN telecast peaked with 4,480,000 viewers at 8:30 p.m. ET.

The game telecast delivered an 8.4 rating in the Washington D.C. market, which is the highest-rated regular season MLB game ever on ESPN in the market. It also generated a 7.8 rating in the New York market, making it the highest-rated regular season MLB game on ESPN in the market since 2015.

Additionally, the second half of ESPN’s exclusive Opening Night telecast doubleheader at 10 p.m. ET – the San Francisco Giants vs. the Los Angeles Dodgers – generated an average audience of 2,764,000 viewers and is ESPN’s most-watched MLB regular season late night ET game ever. The telecast drew a 6.9 rating in the San Francisco market, making it the highest-rated regular season MLB game in the market since 2013. In Los Angeles, the telecast drew a 6.8 rating, making it the highest-rated regular season MLB game on ESPN in the market, outside of the 2018 tiebreaker game vs. the Colorado Rockies.

PLL Finds Sweet Spot for Opening Day on NBC Sports Network
The Premier Lacrosse League (PLL) saw numerous viewership milestones from its opening weekend (three games total) of the PLL Championship Series, played on July 25-26 in Salt Lake City, including the second- and third- most-watched outdoor professional lacrosse games in media history and the most-watched PLL game ever on NBCSN.

The PLL Championship Series’ opening weekend featured a thrilling game on Sunday, July 26 between Atlas and the expansion Waterdogs, which delivered a Total Audience Delivery (TAD) of 341,000 on NBC, making it the second-most watched outdoor pro lacrosse game in media history and the third-most watched pro lacrosse game in 15 years.

The PLL Championship Series got underway with a matchup between Redwoods and Whipsnakes at 4PM ET on July 25 on NBC. Total Audience Delivery (TAD) for the game averaged 334,000 viewers, ranking as the third-most watched outdoor professional lacrosse game in media history. In a rematch of the 2019 Championship Game, Whipsnakes emerged victorious 13-9 behind a dominant team defensive performance.

Saturday’s action continued with a 7:30PM ET game between Chrome and Chaos, which culminated in a come-from-behind 13-9 victory for Chrome led by star attackman Jordan Wolf. The game was broadcast on NBCSN and measured a TAD of 155,000 – the most-watched game in PLL history for a game on NBCSN.

The Premier Lacrosse League additionally led the online conversation throughout the weekend. PLL Championship Series games led to 22 million social impressions on Saturday and Sunday alone and saw official league handles generate 34 million social impressions during the past week (July 19 – July 26).

Odds and Ends: NASCAR, PGA, UFC, NBA Scrimmaging
Midweek NASCAR struggled in the ratings even when there was no competition, so it is no surprise that the latest effort hit a record-low opposite MLB Opening Night.

Thursday’s NASCAR Cup Series race from Kansas averaged a 0.9 rating and 1.47 million viewers on NBCSN, marking the least-watched Cup race on any network since at least 2000. The previous low was 1.51 million for another midweek race this season, Charlotte on FS1 in May. The 0.9 rating tied Charlotte as the lowest since at least ’00.

Midweek races now account for the three smallest Cup Series audiences since at least 2000, with Martinsville in June ranking third (1.71M). (SMW)…

…Final round coverage of the PGA Tour from Minneapolis averaged a 1.7 rating and 2.60 million viewers on CBS Sunday, up a tick in ratings and 14% in viewership from the tournament’s debut last year (1.6, 2.28M). Third round coverage on Saturday averaged a 1.1 and 1.53 million, flat and down 1% respectively (1.1, 1.54M).

Since the PGA Tour returned from hiatus last month, Saturday’s window was just the third of 14 on CBS to decline from last year.

Lead-in coverage on Golf Channel averaged a 0.56 (+24%) and 846,000 (+31%) on Saturday and a 0.43 (+16%) and 607,000 (+13%) on Sunday. (SMW)…

…The latest UFC main event on ESPN averaged a 0.6 rating and 908,000 viewers Saturday night, up 67% in ratings and 69% in viewership from the previous main event, which aired on a Wednesday (0.36, 536K). Compared to the network’s previous Saturday main event last month, ratings fell a tick and viewership 15% (from 1.07M). (SMW)…

…Thursday’s Mavericks-Lakers NBA scrimmage averaged a 0.19 rating and 309,000 viewers on NBA TV, easily the largest audience on the first two days of play. While no match for the competing MLB Opening Day games on ESPN or NASCAR on NBCSN, the scrimmage outdrew competing MLS is Back Tournament matches on FS1 and ESPN2. (SMW)