Top 10 Most Watched Sporting Events on U.S. Television

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As the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles set to face off in Super Bowl LII, a winner has already been decided — the game will once again be the top-rated sporting event, and TV show, of the year on American television. In fact, 19 of the 20 most-watched U.S. TV broadcasts of all time have been Super Bowls (the 1983 M*A*S*H series finale is the only interloper). Here are the most-watched sporting events on U.S. television. The first number refers to the Nielsen rating, the second is the average number of viewers, in millions.

 

10. NASCAR Daytona 500

2017: 6.6/11.9 M
2016: 6.6/11.4 M
2015: 7.7/13.4 M
Average: 7.0 rating/12.2 million average viewers

Ratings for the Daytona 500 have declined roughly 33 percent in the past decade. © NASCAR King

NASCAR is an unusual case, in that its most-watched event is the season opener, not the sport’s championship event. However, ratings for the race have declined more than 33 percent in the past 10-15 years, mirroring an overall decline in NASCAR viewership. The 2016 and 2017 Daytona 500s were tied for the second-lowest rating since live flag-to-flag coverage of the event began in 1979.

 

9. The Masters, Final Round

2017: 6.8/11.1 M
2016: 7.7/12.4 M
2015: 8.7/14.0 M
Average: 7.7 rating/12.5 million average viewers

The Masters has seen its ratings decline in the post-Tiger Woods era. © John Veldboom

Oh, how this tournament — and the entire PGA schedule — misses Tiger Woods in his prime. That 6.8 rating for the final round in 2017 is tied for the lowest since 1980. Still, this prestigious event draws three times the viewers of the PGA’s three other major championship events.

 

8. World Cup Matches With U.S. Men’s National Team

Fans cheer at a viewing party for the USMNT’s game against Portugal in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. © Mobilus In Mobili

Soccer still doesn’t have nearly the popularity in the U.S. as it does elsewhere, but when the USMNT plays on the big stage, America watches. The four 2014 FIFA World Cup matches involving the U.S. Men’s National Team averaged 14.2 million viewers. Bad news for Fox in its coverage of the 2018 World Cup — the United States shockingly did not qualify. According to Sports Illustrated, the 2014 World Cup coverage had 4.6 million viewers over 64 matches.

 

7. Kentucky Derby

2017: 9.3/16.4 M
2016: 9.0/15.5 M
2015: 9.6/16.0 M
Average: 9.3 rating/16.0 million average viewers

The Kentucky Derby draws remarkable numbers for a sport with a relatively small year-round following. © Christopher Angell

These are incredible numbers for what is a niche sport with only a small but devout year-round following. Such is the allure of this iconic American event at Churchill Downs. It’s worth noting that the Kentucky Derby is generally the most-watched horse race of the year, unless a horse wins the first two legs of the Triple Crown, in which case the Belmont Stakes draws a bigger audience. An average 18.5 million viewers tuned in to see American Pharoah win the Triple Crown at Belmont in 2015.

 

6. NCAA Final Four

2017: 13.2/23.0 M
2016: 10.6/17.8 M
2015: 16.0/28.3 M
Average: 13.3 rating/19.7 million average viewers*
* National championship game

The NCAA Final Four site from 2017 in Glendale, Ariz. © Marine 69-71

An average of around 16 million viewers tuned in to watch the Saturday semifinals from 2015-17. The highest-rated and most-watched NCAA championship game of all time came in 1979, when Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team knocked off Larry Bird and Indiana State. That game drew 35.1 million viewers. Of course, TV ratings for many marquee sports events are far lower than they were in the 1970s, before the Internet and hundreds of TV channels broadened everyone’s leisure options.

 

5. NBA Finals

2016: 15.8/31.0 M
2013: 15.3/26.3 M
2010: 15.6/28.2 M
Average: 15.6 rating/27.5 million average viewers*
* Game 7

LeBron James drives against the Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals. © Erik Drost

It certainly hasn’t hurt the NBA or its TV partners that one of the greatest players of all time, LeBron James, has played in the Finals the past seven seasons, as ratings have trended up this decade. Those ratings have been extremely consistent the past few seasons. By the way, that 2016 Game 7 pitting the James and Cavaliers against Stephen Curry and the Warriors became the first NBA game in 18 years to top 30 million viewers.

 

4. College Football Playoff

2017: 15.3/26.0 M
2016: 16.0/26.7 M
2015: 18.9/34.1 M
Average: 16.7 rating/28.9 million average viewers*
* CFP Championship, includes Megacast ratings combining viewers from ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU.

The new College Football Playoff has been a ratings success. © Thomson 20192

This playoff introduced in 2015 has already proven to be far more popular than the previous BCS championship format. Even the semifinals attract big numbers; the Peach Bowl and Fiesta Bowl semifinals in 2017 posted an 11.0 rating and drew 19 million viewers.

 

3. World Series

2017: 15.8/28.2 M
2016: 21.8/40.0 M
2014: 13.7/23.5 M
Average: 17.1 rating/30.6 million average viewers*
* Game 7

The 2016 World Series between the Cubs and the Indians drew a much larger than normal audience. © Michelle

The 2016 classic between the long-suffering Cubs and Indians really skew this number; Game 7 of that series drew the most viewers since Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Yet after years of decline, Fall Classic ratings have edged up in recent years, helped by the presence of some big-market teams and intriguing matchups. Somewhat surprisingly, MLB’s league championship series and divisional and wild-card playoff games would not crack this top 10 list.

 

2. The Olympics

2016: 14.8/24.5 M
2012: 17.5/31.1 M
2008: 16.2/27.7 M
Average: 16.2 rating/27.8 million average viewers

The Summer Olympics are always a big draw. © Alexandre Moreau Photography

The Olympics get a nod here over the World Series for No. 2 on the list. Although prime-time viewership for the 2016 Rio Olympics (24.5 million average viewers) was down from the 2012 London games (31.1 million), these games take place over more than two weeks. NBC billed the Rio games as the “most successful media event in history.” Their viewership numbers touted 100 million unique users who streamed 3.3 billion minutes of the games. The Winter Olympics post slightly lower figures. The 2010 Vancouver games and the 2014 Sochi Olympics averaged 22.9 million viewers in prime time, which would still earn a spot on this list.

 

1. Super Bowl and NFL Playoffs

2017: 45.3/111.3 M
2016: 46.6/111.9 M
2015: 47.5/114.4 M
Average: 46.5 rating/112.5 million average viewers*
* Super Bowl

Walter Payton and Jim McMahon watch the final moments of Super Bowl XX in 1986, still the third-highest rated Super Bowl in history. © Jerry Coli

Forget all the talk about declining regular-season NFL ratings. Even with ratings down the past couple of seasons, the NFL still rules the TV world, and that’s especially true when it comes to postseason games. For example, even though the four NFL wild-card playoff games in 2017 were down from the previous year, they averaged a 17.0 rating, which would put them ahead of half the events on this list. The two conference championship games that year averaged a 27.5 rating.

By the way, there seems to be a myth that the frequent presence of the New England Patriots has hurt the Super Bowl’s ratings. Not so. The two-highest rated Super Bowls in the past 30 years were the Patriots and Seahawks in 2015, with a 47.5 rating, and the Pats and Giants in 2012 (47.0).

(Editor’s note: Compiling this list presents several challenges. For example, is it fair to compare the overall ratings for the World Series or NBA Finals with the winner-take-all NCAA basketball and football championship games? Therefore, we chose data from recent Game 7s from those two sports. Also, the sports landscape has changed dramatically, and TV networks have devised different ways to measure viewership. More sports fans are streaming events on their mobile devices or home computers. Networks are airing their event on multiple channels, and counting streaming data in viewership totals. Resources here included Sports Media Watch, ESPN, SportsBusiness Daily, Forbes, Sports Illustrated, tvbythenumbers.com, Billboard and Variety.)

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.