So I’ve been monitoring the daily sports talk TV ratings for a number of years, and a couple data points from last week caught my eye. First, FS1’s Undisputed with Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe had 74 percent as many viewers as First Take — 171K vs. 233K — on Thursday. I couldn’t recall the gap ever being that close before. And then on Friday, the three-hour average of The Herd with Colin Cowherd, 160K, was greater than the corresponding 2:00-3:00 pm hour on ESPN, where Jalen & Jacoby averaged 157K viewers and Highly Questionable (with normal host Dan Le Batard out) averaged 137K viewers. I definitely couldn’t recall that ever happening either.
Undoubtedly, there will be people who say that those numbers are cherrypicked to make FS1, where my boss and OutKick founder Clay Travis is an on-air contributor, look strong compared to ESPN. In fairness, it would be accurate to say that the gap between ESPN and FS1 was greater than those data points for most of the week. Here are the full numbers:
A quick note on the chart: on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, SportsCenter aired on ESPN in the 2:00 pm ET hour. Jalen & Jacoby and Highly Questionable aired on ESPN2 on Monday and Tuesday, in the 3:00 PM hour on ESPN on Wednesday, and in the 2:00 pm hour on ESPN on Thursday and Friday.
You’ll notice that on Monday and Tuesday, ESPN about doubled FS1 in the hours we’re discussing. That took a turn Wednesday through Friday, as FS1 closed the gap, even if the standard gap wasn’t as close as we pointed out for Undisputed on Thursday and The Herd on Friday.
It’s also noteworthy that ESPN beats FS1’s other talk shows — First Things First, Speak For Yourself, and FOX Bet Live (which Clay Travis appears on) — by a greater margin than they do Undisputed and The Herd. We covered how much Get Up beats First Things First — and other morning sports shows — in a story in June.
Finally, the resilience of Around the Horn and especially Pardon the Interruption is worth mentioning because they continue to dominate the sports talk space in their time slots. Last week, Around the Horn averaged 357K viewers and PTI averaged 610K.
The final thing is that late last week was a period in which, of course, consumers on the margins would choose news over sports, given that the official results of the presidential election were in limbo.
But I still think this is noteworthy because I remember what the conversation was after Jamie Horowitz hired Cowherd away from ESPN in 2015 and Bayless in 2016. There was no one in the marketplace who predicted there would be days as close as last Thursday and Friday.
Here is what the ratings looked like late election week in 2016, after Donald Trump had won in a major surprise:
Undisputed – 103K
Herd – 68K
SportsCenter 9am – 291K
SportsCenter 10am – 266K
SportsCenter 11am – 271K
SportsCenter 12pm – 261K
OTL 1pm – 276K
College Football Live 1:30 pm – 290K
NFL Insiders 2pm – 317K
First Take ESPN2 – 245K
His & Hers ESPN2 – 154K
Undisputed – 86K
Herd – 86K
SportsCenter 9am – 436K
SportsCenter 10am – 391K
SportsCenter 11am – 327K
SportsCenter 12pm – 322K
OTL 1pm – 316K
College Football Live 1:30 pm – 311K
NFL Insiders 2pm – 417K
First Take ESPN2 – 289K
His & Hers ESPN2 – 186K
When you look at those numbers and compare them to the spreadsheet above, you can see how much Skip & Colin closed the gap in the last four years. In that time, those shows on FS1 have grown, and the shows on ESPN have shrunk. This isn’t always the case, but these First Take shows on main ESPN last Thursday and Friday had fewer viewers than First Take had on ESPN2 — it had not yet shifted over to the main network — on the Thursday and Friday of election week in 2016.
If you add ESPN and ESPN2 together as opposed to just comparing ESPN to ESPN, you can see major viewership attrition. Current ESPN2 numbers mostly do not make the Showbuzz Daily list of the top 150 rated cable shows. However, this past Friday on ESPN2, a First Take rerun at noon averaged 63K viewers. Therefore, on this past Friday, ESPN + ESPN2 totaled 282K viewers in the noon hour. On the Friday of election week in 2016, ESPN + ESPN2 totaled 508K viewers in the noon hour. That’s a drop of 44 percent. Declines of ESPN + ESPN2 would likely be even bigger than that in the 10:00 am to noon hours where First Take airs.
As I said earlier, it is a statistical anomaly how close Undisputed was to First Take on Thursday, and so was Colin Cowherd possibly beating ESPN for an hour head-to-head on Friday. And ESPN beats FS1 by even more for the rest of the day. Nonetheless, it will be interesting (at least for the 1,000 or so people who pay close attention to this stuff) to see if trends manifest.
Disclosure: OutKick founder Clay Travis is an on-air personality on FS1.