ESPN’s highly anticipated multi-part Michael Jordan documentary series The Last Dance proved an immediate ratings hit for the sports network, with the first two episodes averaging 6.1m viewers across ESPN and ESPN2.
The “30 for 30” documentary’s launch date was moved up from June to April to help give sports fans some much-needed content amid the competition shutdown enforced by the global Covid-19 pandemic.
The move to release the 10-part series – which is centered on the final season of the Jordan-led Chicago Bulls in 1997-98 – in prime time on Sunday, April 19, paid off immediately.
According to an ESPN release, Episode One (9-10pm ET) averaged 6.3m viewers, while Episode Two (10-11 pm) averaged 5.8m viewers across ESPN and ESPN2. ESPN aired an uncensored version, while ESPN2 removed the rough language for a younger audience.
On ESPN alone, Episode One averaged 5.6m while Episode Two averaged 5m viewers.
It smashed the record for the largest audience for a premiere in the “30 for 30” series, surpassing the 2012 film You Don’t Know Bo (3.6m). The Last Dance also out-performed ESPN’s last long-form documentary, the award-winning O.J.: Made in America, which premiered on sister channel ABC in June 2016 to approximately 3.4m viewers.
It was also the most-watched program on ESPN since the College Football Playoff National Championship in January.
Just two games in the suspended 2019-20 National Basketball Association regular season averaged more viewers than The Last Dance premiere – the Los Angeles Clippers v Los Angeles Lakers (8.76m), and Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors (6.5m) on Christmas Day.
The leading local markets represented where Jordan played the bulk of his career professionally (Chicago) and North Carolina where he grew up, played in college and now owns a professional team (Charlotte Hornets). The top-five metered markets were Chicago (12.1 rating), Raleigh-Durham (6.5 rating), Norfolk (4.9 rating), Charlotte (4.7 rating), and Greensboro (4.7 rating).
It also reached key demographics, with 3.5m of the total 6.1m average audience in the sought-after 18-49 age group. Since the sports shutdown in mid-March, The Last Dance ranks as the most-watched telecast among adults aged 18-34 and 18-49 across all broadcast and cable networks.
The Last Dance dominated conversation on social media. It was the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter on April 19, while at one point 25 of the 30 trending topics were all related to the show. It was also the top Google Search Trend in the US that day.
Meanwhile, on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, The Last Dance posts from ESPN accounted for a combined nine million engagements. Also two pre- and two post-digital live shows combined for 3.5m viewers.
The series continued to dominate the US sports media industry the day after the premiere, with social media, linear and digital sports programs and websites all covering the documentary extensively.
The series will run each Sunday through May 17 domestically, while Netflix holds the international rights. Reruns will also be made available on both ESPN and the ESPN app in the US.
Connor Schell, ESPN’s executive vice president of content said: “We were so thrilled with the response to the premiere of The Last Dance. The feedback from fans and critics was overwhelmingly positive, the viewership numbers were historically strong, and the series dominated the social conversation — registering 25 of the top 30 trending topics at one point during the night. Clearly, fans are craving high-quality sports content and we look forward to building upon the momentum in the coming weeks as the series continues to get better with each episode.”
ESPN documentaries on Lance Armstrong, Bruce Lee, and the 1998 home run chase involving Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa could be released this year, Schell revealed.