Major League Baseball Opener Sets Ratings Record for ESPN

New York Yankees and Washington Nationals in the game at Nationals Park on July 23, 2020 - Getty-H 2020
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The opening night of Major League Baseball's shortened 2020 season set TV ratings records for ESPN.

The rain-shortened opening game between the New York Yankees and World Series champion Washington Nationals drew an audience of 4 million viewers, according to Nielsen fast nationals. That's the largest audience for an opening night game ever, breaking the previous record of 3.7 million viewers in 2017 (Chicago Cubs-St. Louis Cardinals).

Thursday's game, which was cut short by rain in Washington, was also the most watched regular season MLB game on any network since 2011 — a span of nine years. It was way up from ESPN's opening night game last year: That contest between the Boston Red Sox and Seattle Mariners drew just 1.19 million viewers.

A late game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants delivered 2.76 million viewers, the largest ESPN audience ever for a late night (in the Eastern time zone) game. 

The novel coronavirus pandemic — and protracted negotiations over the shortened season between owners and players — led to the first pitch being thrown about four months later than planned. MLB teams will play only 60 regular season games this year, with travel cut back — teams will only play opponents within their own division and its opposite-league counterpart. The postseason will also be expanded to 16 teams from its usual 10.

Both of Thursday's games were played in empty stadiums, a plan MLB expects to follow for the season. Cardboard cutouts of some fans were placed in seats behind home plate at Dodger Stadium. 

The big numbers for baseball Thursday night follow a pattern set by some other sports that have returned during the pandemic. NASCAR's first race back in May drew 6.3 million viewers, a three-year high for the circuit (excluding the season-opening Daytona 500), and PGA Tour ratings have been pacing ahead of their year-ago numbers.  

That could bode well for two other leagues that will resume play soon: The NBA is set to tip off July 30, with the NHL following on Aug. 1.