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A whole lot of people were eager to take one last look at Michael Jordan’s final year with the Chicago Bulls.
The opening two hours of ESPN’s docuseries The Last Dance, which chronicles Jordan’s career, fame and legacy while focusing on the 1997-98 NBA season, averaged 6.1 million viewers Sunday on ESPN and ESPN2. The two episodes are the most-watched ever for ESPN documentary content — and in a sports-starved landscape, outdrew nearly every live NBA game this season.
The debut episode at 9 p.m. ET averaged 6.3 million viewers across the two networks (ESPN aired an uncensored version, while ESPN2 bleeped out rough language). Most of those people stuck around for episode two, which drew 5.8 million viewers. The two hours averaged 3.5 million viewers in the key ad demographic of adults 18-49 — equivalent to about a 2.7 rating, way ahead of anything else on TV on Sunday night.
ESPN had originally scheduled Last Dance to air in June, coinciding with the end of the NBA season. When the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down nearly all sports in the U.S., however, it moved the premiere date up to Sunday.
The 10-hour series has drawn largely positive reviews, with The Hollywood Reporter‘s Daniel Fienberg calling it a “tremendously engaging, ridiculously fun assemblage of spectacular basketball footage and reasonably introspective interviews” with everyone from Jordan himself to Barack Obama (billed as a “former Chicago resident” in the series).
Last Dance compares favorably with ESPN’s last longform documentary, 2016’s O.J.: Made in America. The latter premiered on ABC in June 2016 to about 3.4 million viewers. It was the most-viewed telecast on ESPN since college football’s championship game in January. During the NBA season, only the All-Star game in February (7.3 million viewers) and a pair of Christmas Day games on ABC (8.76 million and 6.5 million) outdrew The Last Dance premiere.
Last Dance is also the most-watched original content broadcast on ESPN since the sports giant started producing originals in 2004. The previous high was 3.6 million viewers for You Don’t Know Bo in 2012. Chicago, unsurprisingly, had the biggest local-market ratings, scoring a 12.1 in households (ahead of everything else on TV there Sunday). Three markets in North Carolina, where Jordan grew up and played in college, and where he’s now an owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets, were also in the top five: Raleigh-Durham (6.5), Charlotte (4.7) and Greensboro (4.7). Norfolk, Virginia (4.9) rounded out the top five.
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