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TV Executives Optimistic For Sports Ratings Rebound In 2021

Executives are optimistic the 2021 fourth quarter can bring normalcy.

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Insiders around the sports television industry are tepidly optimistic that 2021, especially the final quarter, can bring viewership closer to pre-pandemic levels. The Hollywood Reportegauged the issue’s temperature this week as positive signs grow from the NCAA Tournament and young-MLB season. 

ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball ratings are up over 30 percent compared to last season, while the NCAA Tournament slightly lagged behind 2019 figures. 

“Now the challenge is, how do we get fans back in the building and how do we reestablish sports as an engine of social connectivity and a place where people come together?” Executive VP and head of strategy and analytics at Fox Sports Michael Mulvihill told The Hollywood Reporter. “When that happens, I think you’ll see viewership get back to more normal expectations.”

One key factor sports television has going for it is the scarcity of wide-ranging live programming. Monoculture is increasingly fading in today’s society but people are still coming together to support their teams. 

“Our concern, if we have one, it’s more about the general trend of TV use than it is about interest in sports rebounding,” said Mulvihill. “I think the share of viewing taken up by sports is probably going to increase this year. We just don’t know what the trend in that total pie of viewership is going to be.”

The WWE and NBC have teamed up to help drive subscribers to Peacock, NBC’s new all-encompassing streaming app. The WWE exclusively aired Wrestlemania 37 on Peacock this past weekend after NBC began housing all WWE content in January. This is one of the ways leaders in the industry are adapting to the landscape.

Executives are hoping these positive signs culminate in a lucrative 2021 fourth quarter. Fall football action along with the baseball playoffs are crucial periods for sports television revenue.

“I feel like we can look at September and the football season and baseball postseason with a lot of confidence that it’s going to look like a normal sports event,” Mulvihill said to The Hollywood Reporter. “That will bring a resurgence of interest along with it.”

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ESPN’s MegaCast Draws Over 23.1 Million Viewers for MNF Wild Card Weekend Debut

The Cardinals-Rams playoff game became the most-watched Monday night NFL game during ESPN’s Monday Night Football era.

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The first Monday night Wild Card playoff game proved to be a successful one. In fact, it became the most-watched Monday night NFL game during ESPN’s Monday Night Football era (2006 – present).

ESPN’s MegaCast presentation (across ESPN, ABC, ESPN2, and ESPN Deportes) recorded 23,150,000 viewers for the Los Angeles Rams’ blowout victory over the Arizona Cardinals. The audience peaked at 27.9 million viewers while the Rams led 21-0 in the second quarter (from 9:30 – 9:45 p.m.).

The game puts a bow on top of a season during which Monday Night Football finished the regular season with its best viewership since 2010, up 16% from 2020 and 13% from 2019.

As part of ESPN’s MegaCast, NFL Super Wild Card with Peyton and Eli continued its massive success that viewers have grown accustomed to. The “ManningCast” was again one of the network’s most-watched alternate telecasts, with the duo’s most recent shows now among ESPN’s nine most-watched alternate broadcasts. The audience on ESPN2 for the Wild Card game registered 1,419,000 million viewers.

The successful debut adds to an entire season of bests for ESPN. During the 2021-22 season, including the Monday Night Wild Card debut, ESPN delivered two of the four most-watched NFL Monday night games and three of the six during this era of MNF (2006 – present).

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NBC 2022 Winter Olympics Broadcast Teams Will Not Go To Beijing

NBC’s Olympic broadcasters will work remotely from the network’s Stamford, Connecticut facility.

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On Wednesday, NBC announced that Olympic gold medalist and Alpine skiing legend Lindsey Vonn is joining the network’s coverage for the Beijing Winter Games. Unfortunately, any excitement over an Olympic star getting into broadcasting and providing analysis was soon undercut by a reminder that the world is still dealing with a global pandemic that is preventing life from returning to normal.

As reported by USA Today‘s Christine Brennan, NBC has decided not to send any of its Olympic broadcast teams to China and the announcers will cover their respective events remotely due to COVID-19 concerns.

Most of NBC’s Olympic announcing teams were already going to broadcast remotely from the network’s Stamford, Connecticut facility. But the original plans were for broadcasters to be on-site for figure skating, Alpine skiing, and snowboarding. That has obviously changed with the Omicron variant causing breakouts throughout the world.

Host Mike Tirico will still travel to Beijing for the opening ceremony on Feb. 4 and the initial few days of the Winter Olympics. But he’ll return to the U.S. to host NBC’s Super Bowl coverage on Feb. 13.

“We’ll still have a large presence on the ground in Beijing and our coverage of everything will be first rate as usual,” NBC Sports senior VP of communications Greg Hughes told Brennan. “But our plans are evolving by the day as they are for most media companies covering the Olympics.”

Viewers who have watched any sporting event with broadcasters working remotely have noticed the difference in how the action is called. Announcers can’t get a feel for how the reaction of the crowd influences the event. And in some cases, watching from a monitor rather than the usual on-site broadcast position can inhibit proper view of a play.

So NBC’s Olympics coverage will certainly suffer from broadcasters not being on-site, especially for the events mentioned above in which spectators can be a factor. That could make some showcase moments feel less compelling at times. But the excitement of an Olympics and standout athletic achievements should still be enjoyable to watch, regardless of where the announcers are situated.

The Beijing Winter Olympics begin Feb. 3 with broadcast coverage on NBC, USA Network, and CNBC, and streaming on Peacock, NBCOlympics.com, and the NBC Sports app.

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‘The Tuck Rule,’ ESPN’s Latest 30 for 30 Documentary, Debuts Feb. 6

The film chronicles the infamous play from the 2001 NFL playoff game between the Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots.

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Will we get more 30 for 30 documentaries from ESPN this year? In 2021, the network broadcast three new films in the series: Al Davis vs. the NFL, Breakaway, and Once Upon a Time in Queens.

Though to be fair, Once Upon a Time in Queens was a four-part documentary, providing the longer-form film that ESPN seems to prefer at least once a year since O.J.: Made in America and The Last Dance.

Just as Al Davis vs. the NFL debuted last February, the next 30 for 30 will be a NFL-related film that premieres during the off-week between the conference championship games and Super Bowl. The Tuck Rule debuts Feb. 6 at 8:30 p.m. ET and will be available to stream on ESPN+ after its TV airing.

As the title indicates, the film chronicles the infamous play from the 2001 NFL playoff game between the Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots. Late in the game, Oakland’s Charles Woodson appeared to have forced a fumble by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. But since Brady’s arm was moving forward and he was apparently attempting to tuck the ball into his body, the referees called the play an incomplete pass.

Check out the trailer for The Tuck Rule:

The “tuck rule” play was one of the most controversial in NFL playoff history. Rather than the Raiders forcing a turnover and protecting a three-point lead, the Patriots maintained possession and continued a drive that eventually led to a game-tying field goal by Adam Vinatieri. New England won the game in overtime, 16-13, the first step in a playoff run that ended with a Super Bowl championship, the first of six during the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era.

Directed by Ken Rodgers (The Two Bills, Al Davis vs. the NFL), The Tuck Rule gets Woodson and Brady together to watch the play and recount their memories of that moment. What appeared to be a fumble to nearly everyone involved in the game was negated by an obscure rule of which only the officials seemed to be aware.

Perhaps the most important figure interviewed for the documentary is referee Walt Coleman, who made the rule. Belichick, team owner Robert Kraft, and players Tedy Bruschi, Troy Brown, and Willie McGinest give the Patriots side. Current Raiders owner Mark Davis, Tim Brown, Eric Allen, and Lincoln Kennedy provide the Oakland perspective.

The Tuck Rule debuts Sunday, Feb. 6 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. The documentary will be available on ESPN+ following the television premiere.

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