What sport will be the next F1 on U.S. TV? Our candidates for a ratings boom
Death, taxes and NFL viewership. Few things in life are certain, but these are three of them. The final stages of February represent a breather from the National Football League, which has consistently been the most-watched program of the year. The final viewership for the Kansas City Chiefs’ victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII was 113.1 million viewers on Fox, including a peak of 118.9 million from 8 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. ET. This ratings average became the third most watched US television program of all time.
The NFL, even with small ups and downs in those who consume the product, remains the standard bearer of sports viewership in America. But this week my colleague Bill Shea and I have been reflecting on which sports have the best prospects of making a viewership jump in the next few years, much like Formula 1 did recently. Last year’s Formula 1 season averaged 1.21 million viewers per race across ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, up 28 percent from 2021’s record averaging 949,000 viewers. Broadcast and cable windows and marketing had a significant impact on this jump, but the numbers are the numbers — and it’s a compelling story. Are there other sports out there that can generate crowds? let’s discuss
German: I like the idea of trying to extrapolate which sports could grow in viewership over the next few years, especially when compared to the larger industry trends of cord-cutting, cord-never, and Inventory is switched to streaming. I have a few sports that I like, but I’ll let you go first as you’ve written extensively about sports viewers for the past two years. Where are you looking?
Shea: The obvious feature is formula One, which has garnered a lot of attention in the US, not only through racing but also through Drive To Survive on Netflix – we’ll be seeing more and more of these kinds of storytelling documentaries around sports like this. The XFL has such programming with Peter Berg-directed Player 54: Chasing the XFL Dream on the Disney platforms. However, I don’t know how much space F1 has left to increase viewership, but there’s probably some runway left. We see all kinds of sports that are marginal in the US, like rugby and cricket, making small strides but nothing moving the needle significantly.
I think Women’s College Softball, which overtook the men’s College World Series, will continue to produce good numbers. I think the WNBA and other women’s sports will continue to reach growing audiences as the networks and advertisers transcend “Mad Men”-era thinking to capitalize on sports programs that have unrealized value. Overall, as the TV industry – and by that I mean the sports and entertainment delivery mechanisms from linear TV to streaming – remains in flux with changing consumer habits, technological developments, etc., we are not yet in a stable new normal. We’ll see ups and downs, providing opportunities for non-major leagues to pick up eyeballs.
German: I think 2023 is the year that F1 hits viewership. I hope I’m wrong because it’s an exciting sport to watch. I have long been a proponent of Women’s Basketballand this sport still has plenty of runway to keep growing — South Carolina’s win over Connecticut in the 2022 NCAA women’s basketball championship averaged 4.85 million viewers, making it the most-watched college basketball game on ESPN since 2008. If ESPN got its tally As ABC programming continues to increase for the WNBA and women’s collegiate basketball, the numbers will continue to rise.
But the two sports I would choose in the short term are College volleyball for women and softball. Let’s start with women’s volleyball. The sport is made for visual viewing – it’s fast-paced and features hyper-athletic athletes. The 2022 national championship between Texas and Louisville was an outlier in terms of viewership. The game averaged 786,000 viewers on ESPN2, far fewer than 2021 when Wisconsin-Nebraska drew 1.19 million viewers on ESPN2. The 2021 final was up 71 percent from 2020 (well into the COVID year). I think you’ll see national championship pop again in 2023. (I would also like to point out that the Big Ten Network has done a great job of programming and promoting women’s collegiate volleyball and has seen strong viewership.)
College softball is also fast-paced and athletic, with many points and games ending in a relatively short period of time. ESPN has treated the sport like a Tier I property and has been rewarded with strong viewership. The final game of the Women’s College World Series in 2022 – Oklahoma vs. Texas – averaged 1.7 million viewers and peaked at 2.1 million. That’s essentially what the NHL Winter Classic gets in viewership. With everything in sight for women’s sport – attendance, funding, participation, opportunities – viewership is bound to follow. If they get more big name ads, beware.
Shea: You’re right. Given the presence on the big channels, particularly broadcasters, along with the right mix of marketing hype that men’s sport has long enjoyed – boom, there’s a nice audience overall. The evidence is there and I think networks are emerging. Critics – writing about women’s sports brings out the caveman attitude of some people – often fail to understand that not every show needs to have a huge audience.
You can’t use an old sports facility as a basis for comparison because television doesn’t work that way. If that were the case, anything on television would be a failure when juxtaposed with a random NFL game given how radically television viewing has changed in the past decade. The networks and tech giant streamers have their own internal success metrics for each piece of programming. Does it meet these metrics? Is it cost neutral or does it make money? Bleeding cash? Is there any other programming that you can fit into this time frame that is cheaper and generates more profits? That’s the age old question about television programming. That’s why you’ll find cornhole and darts and bowling on cable TV at odd hours — viewers are there, but they don’t have to be huge to survive. It’s like firing a marginal coach: do you have a replacement in mind that wins more?
And for women’s sports, there are budget-conscious advertisers who want to reach these audiences to market their products and services, even if they’re not millions of people. With the current advertising-based model for television, I think the whole point of all of this is to sell us stuff.
German: My expanded list of sports to watch in the near future would include college hockey, Men and women. I think that’s an underappreciated commodity for a small audience pop. ESPN executives are very impressed Lacrosse, so that’s another sport to watch. I’m not a long-term believer in any spring football league. I don’t see the sustainability, even if it’s funded by the networks. I also don’t believe in pickleball as a spectator game, but I do believe in its popularity as a recreational sport. In the longer term I will be very excited to see what the preparation for the 2026 World Cup will do for football viewers in 2025 and then 2027 as the event will be held in the USA, Canada and Mexico.
Shea: Totally agree with Pickleball. Some sports lend themselves more to participation than to broad television viewing. Fads come and go, like roller derby and jai alai.
As for spring football, I’m on the fence. The original arena league lasted for decades, admittedly across different eras and with many battles. I think there is a market for some sort of spring pro football product but I’m not sure what it is, what it looks like and when is best. We may not find out for a long time if the XFL and USFL are doomed to each other, but there are always rich folks with money to burn the dream of springtime pro football. I suspect the proximity of the original USFL will remain a siren’s song to some.
Football remains the holy grail for broadcasters. If the US men’s national team could finally reach the World Cup finals when it’s played in the States, that would be the ideal scenario. The women’s team is world class and holds the domestic TV record for a football broadcast, but a successful USMNT win of the FIFA World Cup trophy at home would further elevate the game here and likely shake that mark – I’m thinking a Miracle On The Pitch -Scenario.
In the meantime, I’m curious to see what viewership MLS is getting as part of its new streaming deal with Apple, which puts every game behind a paywall (aside from a handful of linear Fox TV shows). As with the NFL on Thursday night with Amazon there is a deal – Faustian? — to swap reach for dollars in the short-term in hopes that streaming will become the primary way Americans consume all content. We’re not there yet and MLS remains the #3 football league on US television behind Liga MX and the Premier League. Until our top-flight professional league reaches the largest domestic audience, football will remain a sideshow aside from the World Cup, which takes place every four years. Maybe one day, televised football will rival the NFL, but we’re a long way from that.
I checked out XFL 3.0 so you don’t have to (but you should!): Some key takeaways
(Top photo of Oklahoma celebrating the 2022 College World Series title: Brian Bahr/Getty Images)