Audience Insights: Football Finishes with a Flourish as TV Sports Spring Forward

02.01.2024 David Gustafson5 min

Football on TV continues to draw engaged audiences, and dynamic spring sports are up next.

While hosting Saturday Night Live back in October, comedian Nate Bargatze took on the role of George Washington in what has been hailed as “the best ‘SNL’ sketch in years.”(1)

As Bargatze’s Washington waxes wishfully of a new nation that would one day be free to choose its own systems of weights and measures, the conversation turns to football – creating some obvious confusion among the troops:

“FOOT-ball, sir?”

“Yes, it’s a sport where you throw a ball with your hands.”

“So, in football, there is no kicking?”

“There’s a little kicking. You kick the ball to get points.”

“How many points, sir?”

“Sometimes one and sometimes three.”

Nearly 250 years removed from that fictitious setting, many of us are still hard-pressed to explain football’s nuances – but one number is abundantly clear.  In the world of televised sports, football is the undisputed #1, and the 2023 season was no exception.

Early in the NFL season, Disney announced that ABC would dip into the football well by co-opting ESPN’s Monday Night Football to bolster a sluggish primetime lineup.  The cross-channel exposure catapulted the long-running franchise to what, according to ESPN, “is now officially the most-watched MNF season of the ESPN era (2006 – present), averaging 17.1 million viewers.”(2)

As for the game within the game, taking the field against its larger Broadcast TV cousin looked to be a daunting proposition for ESPN, at least on paper.  According to Nielsen estimates, ESPN is available to approximately three out of every five ABC households across the U.S.  But, as former SportsCenter anchor Dan Patrick might say, “That’s why they don’t play games on paper – they play them inside television sets.”  For the 13 Monday nights the two networks went head-to-head, analysis of national Nielsen data reveals that ESPN’s Monday Night Football coverage outperformed ABC by nearly 35% within the core Men 25-54 viewing audience – and ESPN’s overall audience outpaced ABC’s by nearly 15% in terms of median household income.(3)(4)

As the regular season gave way to the playoffs, ESPN and ABC again joined forces to produce record-setting results.  Combined coverage of the Texans-Ravens AFC divisional round game on Jan. 20 drew more than 32 million viewers, marking the second straight year “in which the final game of the season was [ESPN’s] most-watched NFL game ever, playoffs or regular season, dating back to 1987 when ESPN acquired NFL rights.”(5)

Across all networks, Nielsen reported that this season’s 12 NFL playoff games leading up to the Super Bowl averaged 38.5 million viewers per game – the highest number in more than three decades, according to analysis from Forbes.  That includes Peacock’s foray into football with the first-ever streaming-exclusive NFL playoff game.  The Dolphins-Chiefs wild card telecast on Jan. 13 produced a paradox for Peacock.  From a streaming standpoint, the game is widely credited as being the “most-streamed live event in U.S. history,” but the estimated audience of 23 million viewers ranked as the least-watched of the six games from Wild Card weekend.(6)(7)

That collective playoff success capped off a 2023 that saw the NFL dominate the list of the year’s top telecasts.  According to Variety’s analysis of Nielsen data, NFL programming accounted for nearly half of last year’s 100 most-watched primetime telecasts.(8)

And so it was a wildly successful season for football on TV – but now, as the NFL trots off the field until fall, an obvious question is which televised sports will step up their game as spring approaches.  After extensive scouting, our team here at the Audience Insights desk has our sights set on these prospects that seem poised to pique viewers’ interest:

  • NCAA March Madness – Women’s sports continue to surge in popularity, and women’s college basketball is no exception.  On Jan. 25, top-ranked South Carolina’s win at LSU scored ESPN’s third-highest viewership ever for a women’s college hoops game.  And two days later, superstar Caitlin Clark led Iowa to a win over Nebraska that would finish as the most-watched women’s basketball game in the history of the Big Ten Network.  Those successes come on the heels of record-setting viewership for last year’s women’s tournament, which returns to the ESPN family of networks in March.  And on the men’s side of the bracket, the Final Four and National Championship return to TBS this year.(9)(10)
  • Major League Baseball – The first pitch of the 2024 MLB season will happen March 28, and ESPN will be there with exclusive coverage of the season opener between the Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers.
  • NBA Playoffs – The regular season continues through April 14.  Then on April 16, the Play-In Tournament tips off more than six weeks of full-court postseason action.

In the SNL “Washington’s Dream” sketch, General George’s grandiose vision for weights and measures is very briefly derailed when one of his soldiers questions why a ton is 2,000 pounds, yet there is no word for 1,000 pounds.  Similarly, we may have missed something in our list of upcoming TV sports highlights.  If you have a sport that deserves a shoutout, use the form on this page or contact your local Cox Media team to let us know.


Sourcing Notes

  1. “An Oral History of ‘Washington’s Dream,’ the Best ‘SNL’ Sketch in Years.” Tony Maglio (Nov. 10, 2023).
  2. “ESPN’s Monday Night Football Generates Audience…” Derek Volner (Jan. 1, 2024).
  3. Dan Patrick quote from
  4. Cox Media Insights Group analysis of Nielsen Total U.S. Live+SD Linear TV audience data for 2023 Monday Night Football telecasts.
  5. “One for the Record Books…” Derek Volner (Jan. 23, 2024).
  6. “The 12 NFL Postseason Games Averaged a Record 38.5 Million Viewers.” Brad Adgate (Feb. 1, 2024).
  7. “What Peacock’s Record-Breaking NFL Streaming Ratings Don’t Tell You.” Bill Bradley (Jan. 19, 2024).
  8. “The 100 Most-Watched Telecasts of 2023.” Michael Schneider (Dec. 29, 2023).
  9. “LSU-South Carolina Women’s College Basketball Game Draws 1.6 Million Viewers on ESPN.” Jeff Kotuby (Jan. 31, 2024).
  10. “Iowa vs. Nebraska Sets BTN Record for Women’s Basketball Broadcast.” BTN Communications (Jan. 30, 2024).
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About the Author

David Gustafson

As Cox Media’s Director of Audience Research, David drives positive outcomes for marketers by applying a unique blend of data-informed analysis, industry expertise, and storytelling skills that have earned him a tenured role as the company’s “Professor.” Specializing in audience measurement and market intelligence, David is a member of the Ampersand Cross-MVPD Research Committee, Nielsen Local Policy Guidelines Committee (PGC) and VAB Measurement Innovation Task Force, as well as client advisor to Comscore.

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