ESPN’s much-anticipated Michael Jordan documentary series The Last Dance waltzed its way to a big audience Sunday. Per Nielsen, the opening two episodes of the doc averaged 5.3 million viewers on ESPN from 9–11 p.m., a number which rises to 6.1 million when including the PG-rated simulcast on ESPN 2. The cable sports giant, currently suffering through an unprecedented programming disruption caused by the shutdown of virtually all pro sporting events, said Last Dance generated the best numbers for anything on ESPN since the college football championship on January 13.
Last Dance didn’t just look good relative to the rerun programming airing on the network in recent weeks. The doc gave ESPN its best-ever documentary ratings, easily surpassing the 3.4 million viewers who watched the ABC premiere of ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America back in 2016. It also scored the best numbers for any ESPN original production since 2004’s You Don’t Know Bo, which was seen by 3.6 million viewers. And not surprisingly, Last Dance over-performed with younger audiences: 3.5 million of the 6.1 million who watched the doc on ESPN and ESPN 2 were adults under 50, which translates to a 2.7 rating. ESPN says that’s the best same-day demo rating for any broadcast or cable telecast since sports programming disappeared in mid-March. The overall audience for Last Dance will continue to climb once DVR replays and digital views on the ESPN app are tallied. Already, another 794,000 viewers caught a West Coast encore of the doc at 9 p.m. PT.
While there’s no denying the very strong performance of Last Dance, it is worth noting that the audience for the program slipped between episodes, dropping from 6.3 million for the first hour to 5.8 million for the second. That’s not unheard of in TV: Linear audiences tend to go down across the board in the 10 p.m. hour as viewers go to sleep or switch to streaming. What’s more, while these are big numbers for ESPN non-sports broadcasts, the 5.3 million viewers the doc drew on ESPN alone is about half of what sister network ABC drew last Friday with its Disney Family Singalong special (10.4 million), and little more than one-third of what CBS got with an episode of NCIS last week (13.4 million). This shouldn’t be taken as a diss of Last Dance, however — ESPN doesn’t target the same sort of broad audiences as ABC and CBS, and the total viewer audience for the aforementioned network programming was padded with lots of kids and older viewers.