Fans who had been starving for live sporting events had their appetites somewhat sated last weekend.
Network executives knew the first weekend with multiple live events would draw good numbers but for the most part they exceeded expectations. The Bundesliga's return drew record numbers on Fox Sports 1, Saturday night's UFC card on ESPN was one of the top shows on cable television and Sunday's NASCAR race on Fox was the most-viewed non-Daytona race in three years.
“It was fun being able to watch everything and not knowing what was going to happen. The good thing is people can see a little bit of the pieces of the sports world being able to restart,” said NBC's Mike Tirico, who called Sunday's TaylorMade Driving Relief exhibition match.
ESPN dominated the weekend. According to Nielsen, the network won Sunday night's cable ratings with the final two episodes of “The Last Dance,” while Saturday's UFC Fight Night card was the third-most viewed program on cable, averaging 1.20 million. Saturday's card was the eighth-most viewed UFC telecast on an ESPN network since the network started airing bouts last January.
It was also the second-most viewed ESPN Fight Night. The record remains 1.5 million for the first card aired last February.
Bundesliga games on Fox Sports 1 posted their best numbers on the network since it began airing the German professional soccer league in 2015. The Bundesliga is the first of Europe's first-division soccer leagues to resume play.
Saturday's matches averaged 365,000 viewers while Sunday's games, which featured seven-time champion Bayern Munich, averaged 361,000. Fox Sports Senior Vice President Michael Mulvihill said that is a 725% increase over the last Bundesliga match on FS1 prior to the shutdown.
It is also only the second weekend this season that Bundesliga matches were viewed by over 100,000 fans on Fox Sports 1.
“What we’ve seen over the last six weeks is that any time a fan has been given the opportunity to show how much they miss live sports, they have. The appetite is extremely strong,” Mulvihill said.
Fox's strong weekend continued with the NASCAR race at Darlington, South Carolina, averaging 6.32 million. It was the most-watched race outside of the Daytona 500 since the March 2017 race in Atlanta.
Having a late afternoon East Coast window and shelter-in-place measures still in place led to audience increases over 100% in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia.
NASCAR could continue to see big audiences over the next two weeks. The race Wednesday night at Darlington will be on FS1 and Sunday's race at Charlotte will be the first big sporting event to take place on its regularly scheduled date in over two months.
“We're optimistic to see what the numbers will be over the next couple weeks. It might be six or more weeks where NASCAR has the stage to itself,” Mulvihill said.
What encourages Mulvihill even more is that Fox's NASCAR ratings are down only 2% from last year.
NBC Sports Group said TaylorMade Driving Relief on Sunday averaged 2.35 million viewers across all platforms, which included NBC, Golf Channel and NBCSN as well as the network and PGA Tour's streaming apps. The network said the broadcast was on par with final-round events on CBS (2.32M) and NBC (2.35M) aired last spring.
Tirico said the highlight for him was seeing the golfers in shorts and carrying their own clubs as the team of Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson defeated Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff.
The golf and NASCAR broadcasts also showed what challenges could lie ahead for network crews over the next couple of months. Tirico anchored the golf coverage from his home in Michigan, while Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon called the NASCAR race from Charlotte. NBC had a pair of on-course reporters while Fox had only one pit reporter at Darlington.
With announcers spread out over the country, the first hour of broadcasts can be challenging.
“The TV viewer is going to understand delays and glitches. We learned a lot, though, which should help over the next couple months,” Tirico said.
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