ESPN Exec: Sports Is Seeing Steady Comeback as Summer Ratings Show

Novak Djokovic in 2022 Wimbledon men's semifinal
ESPN‘s coverage of the 2022 Wimbledon tennis tournament, including Novak Djokovic’s men’s semifinal match against Cameron Norrie, was up 41% in the ratings over 2021. (Image credit: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

ESPN is entering the hot summer months with some ratings momentum fueled by year-to-year audience increases from its NBA Finals and NHL Stanley Cup Finals coverage on broadcast network ABC and its coverage of the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

ABC’s June coverage of the six-game Golden State Warriors-Boston Celtics NBA Finals averaged 12.4 million viewers, up 22% from last year’s COVID-delayed Milwaukee Bucks-Phoenix Suns finasl and the most-watched NBA Finals in three years, according to Nielsen. ABC’s Colorado Avalanche-Tampa Bay Lightning Stanley Cup Final last month averaged 4.6 million viewers, posting an 84% average viewership increase from NBC’s July 2021 Lightning-Montreal Canadiens final. 

Heading into Wimbledon’s finals weekend, ESPN was averaging nearly 620,000 viewers across ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, up 41% from 2021’s coverage of the Grand Slam tournament. 

With Major League Baseball’s Home Run Derby, the WNBA’s postseason and the start of the 2022 college football campaign, ESPN is bullish about its summer ratings run, according to network senior VP of programming and planning Freddy Rolón, who recently spoke to Multichannel News. An edited version of the interview appears below: 

MCN: Do the strong ratings gains for the NHL and NBA Finals signal that the TV sports industry has returned to normal two years after the pandemic? 

Freddy Rolón: I feel like what we're seeing is the steady comeback of sports and sports viewership. There's a tendency to talk about pre-pandemic versus today, but it still feels like we’re in the pandemic. We were able to get through the [NBA and NHL] finals, but it’s easy to forget how a few months ago the NHL’s scheduled Olympic break became a COVID break. So we're still dealing with some of the effects of COVID even though we were lucky enough to kind of keep both seasons on track in terms of where they fell on the schedule. I think we as fans — both as viewers and as programmers — are still trying to deal with getting back to normal. Thinking through 2020, it seems like centuries away but we’re still coming out of it. We're getting there, but I think we may have a little short term memory on how close we are to it still. 

Freddy Rolon of ESPN

Freddy Rolón  (Image credit: ESPN)

MCN: Having said that, were you surprised at the ratings performance for both the NBA and NHL postseason?

FR: Honestly, I would say surprised and very pleased. The playoff runs for the NHL and NBA helped fuel ESPN’s second-quarter ratings, which were up 22% in primetime — the best since 2014. We topped cable viewers 18-49 for total day, and a lot of that was driven up not only by the live playoff games, but the studio shows which gave us a lift. The ability to talk about what was happening in games allows us to continue the conversation with fans beyond the live games throughout the quarter. 

MCN: How do the ratings for the two finals bode for the importance of live sports programming on linear TV? 

FR: It shows that there is an audience that is seeking this content on linear platforms. With the NHL especially, all of the games were available across platforms, but live sports has been a driver for us consistently on linear. We can point to our success in college sports this past season, which were up consistently across the board on our linear platforms. Just in the second quarter alone, WNBA games were up 15% year to year; the NBA Draft was up 28%; and PGA Championship golf coverage was up 12%. Our Formula One races on ESPN were up 11%. Our women’s softball coverage had its best ratings since 2011 and the men’s baseball playoffs were up 20%. There’s a consistent story that we have to share of how sports are consistently drawing bigger audiences. 

MCN: How do you then balance your success on the linear side with reaching fans with live sports content on the digital platform?

FR: [ESPN president] Jimmy Pitaro says it really well with regards to operating on parallel paths here — growing one does not have to come at the expense of the other. There’s nothing that stops us from growing both businesses and working with audiences across those platforms. The strategy for those platforms differs sport by sport. With Wimbledon, for example, the Centre Court matches are on ESPN, and ESPN Plus covers the matches on the other courts. That expands our coverage of the event. We’re able to deliver more sports content through ESPN Plus that gives fans a deeper dive into the sports that they love that might not be available on ESPN. So from my standpoint, there’s room for both. They’re not necessarily competitive, but additive for us.

MCN: How do you see the network continuing to build its ratings momentum throughout the rest of the summer? 

FR: We’ve had great ratings for Wimbledon and I’m excited to see how [baseball's] Home Run Derby does. We’re also looking forward to the college football season, which is just around the corner — I think that’s going to help us continue the trend.  ■

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.