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Live Sports Programming Sizzling on the Summer Ratings Front

Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers strips the ball from Danilo Gallinari #8 of the Atlanta Hawks during the second half of game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals at State Farm Arena on June 11, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers strips the ball from Danilo Gallinari #8 of the Atlanta Hawks during the second half of game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals at State Farm Arena on June 11, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Image credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Live sports programming has generated some strong ratings numbers so far this summer as fans settle into having their favorite sports events return to their traditional seasonal time periods.

The NBA playoffs have scored big for the league and for ESPN thus far. The league’s conference semifinal round which ended June 20th averaged 4.1 million viewers over 24 telecasts across ESPN, TNT and ABC, up 33% from the same 24 games during last year’s conference finals, which took place during the late summer/early fall of 2020 due to the pandemic, per a Sports Business Journal analysis.

The NBA Playoffs have helped propel TNT and ESPN to the top of the cable network ratings charts. Through June 20, TNT has averaged more primetime viewers during the last four weeks than any other cable network, topping perennial chart leader Fox News, while ESPN finished among the top five rated cable networks in primetime during those weeks. While the league’s playoff ratings are slightly down compared to 2019, the league was able to rebound nicely with viewers after struggling while in a COVID-avoiding bubble last year. 

Read also: Weekly Cable Ratings: TNT Tops Primetime; Fox News Rules in Total Day

It’s not just basketball that’s scoring on the ratings front. NBC Sports two weekends ago generated its second-most watched U.S. Open golf tournament in five years, while ESPN last week reported Sunday Night Baseball viewership is up 31% from last year’s full season average and up 7% compared to the same time period in 2019. 

Read also: TV By the Numbers: NBA, U.S. Open Soar in Watch-Time, TV Ad Impressions

“With sports coming back to a somewhat normal schedule, the excitement of the  crowd as well as the relief of people going back to their daily routines all contribute  to driving up sports ratings,” said sports analyst Lee Berke.

The live sports programming lineup will continue to heat up in July, with high profile events like the NBA Finals, NHL Stanley Cup finals, the Copa America and UEFA Euro 2020 soccer tournaments and the Summer Olympics -- along with major pay-per-view events like the July 10 UFC 264 Conor McGregor-Dustin Poirier 3 event and the July 24 Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder 3 heavyweight boxing event.

Even as people return to their normal lives after the pandemic shutdown, Berke says viewers will continue to return home to watch must-see live sports events on the small screen.

“If they are going to be outside for a picnic or a party they know they can watch a movie or series later on demand,” he said. “But when it comes to watching a game seven or other big sports event, they’ll have to be in front of the TV set watching the game.”