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Which U.S. Sport Had the Highest Viewership in 2018?

Jeremy Bowman, The Motley Fool

At a time of transition in the television industry, sports has been one of the few types of programming that can command millions of viewers at a time. That's a boon not only for the broadcast and cable networks, but also for advertisers who know they can get a reliable audience that's generally willing to sit through commercials to see what happens next in the game.

However, the major sports are undergoing their own transformations. The National Football League is still trying to bounce back from a series of negative publicity events, including player protests that President Trump has drawn attention to, and safety concerns after a rash of ex-players committed suicide after being diagnosed with CTE, a brain disorder caused by multiple concussions.

In baseball, the major leagues are confronting an aging fan base and complaints that the sport, which rose to prominence during the radio era, is too slow for viewers in the age of the smartphone. Finally, the National Basketball Association has largely been ascendant, appealing to a younger and more global audience than the other two major sports, but this year the league saw its marquee player, LeBron James, flee to the West Coast to join the Los Angeles Lakers, meaning his games might air too late for some in other U.S. time zones to see.

There are multiple ways to calculate viewership in sports, especially since the leagues play a different number of games, but in this list I'll focus on average viewers per game. Here, then, in order from lowest to highest, is the ranking of U.S. sports by viewership this year.

Three men, including one in a football jersey, sit on a sofa in front of a TV while drinking beer.

Image source: Getty Images.

3. Major League Baseball

The nation's pastime and by far the oldest team sport in the country, baseball has yielded its cultural influence in recent years to football and basketball. However, there was some good news for fans this year as Disney (NYSE: DIS)-owned ESPN, the biggest national broadcaster of baseball, saw ratings tick up slightly. 

According to Nielsen (NYSE: NLSN), the audience for ESPN's games this year rose 2% from 2017 to an average of 1,074,000.  However, baseball's marquee event, the World Series, didn't experience the same boost. Ratings fell 23% for the Fall Classic, as an average of 14.3 million viewers tuned in for the five-game series this year. The decline was surprising, because the series featured two big-market teams, the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers. 

Aggregate data for locally televised games is unavailable, but local viewership is significantly lower than the 1.07 million viewers ESPN had for its nationally televised games. For comparison, the New York Yankees, which play in the country's biggest market and have one of the biggest followings in the sport, had an average of about 300,000 viewers this year, leading the league. The Oakland A's were at the bottom of the list reported by Forbes, with an average audience of just 18,000.   

2. National Basketball Association

The NBA plays better globally than any other American sport, and it's the most popular game in the world after soccer. The NBA has attracted players from all over the world, and teams increasingly have an international pedigree these days, as seen recently in the rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo, arguably the most exciting player in the game right now. Known as the "Greek Freak," Antetokounmpo was born and raised in Greece and is of Nigerian descent. He plays for the Milwaukee Bucks.

The NBA season, which starts in the fall and finishes in the spring, doesn't follow the calendar year, but ratings for nationally televised games for the 2017-18 season were the best in four years, with an average of 1.28 million, up 8% from the year before, according to Nielsen data.  Like the MLB, the NBA saw a decline in viewership for its championship series, as the 2018 NBA Finals, featuring the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers for the fourth straight year, drew an average of 17.6 million viewers in the Warriors' four-game sweep, down from 20.4 million the year before. 

Thus far in the 2018-19 season, viewership has been down. Through the first few weeks of the season, viewership for AT&T-owned (NYSE: T) TNT games declined 26% from a year ago, while ESPN games are reportedly down 6%. That slide has been particularly sharp in early doubleheader games, which has been blamed on Lebron James' absence from the Eastern Conference, whose games air earlier than those in the west. James' move to the Lakers has left the east relatively devoid of star players.

Still, the NBA looks to be in good shape to gain share on other leagues, as the highlight-rich sport lends itself well to today's social media and smartphone consumption. It also has a younger and more international audience than the other leagues.

1. National Football League 

Despite its recent woes, American football still reigns supreme on the airwaves. In addition to the sport's own TV-friendly qualities, it benefits from a short season and games that are only played weekly, usually on Sunday, encouraging fans to tune in to each game.

While football has been surrounded by controversy, ratings are rising this year after a dismal 2017 that saw many fans turn away in the wake of the player protests during the national anthem. Those issues seem to be fading to the background, as viewership is reportedly up 5% through the end of November to an average of 15.8 million, and ratings tend to increase toward the end of the season as the playoff race heats up and the weather turns cold. 

Earlier this year, the Super Bowl, reliably the most watched event in the country, drew 103.7 million viewers to watch the Philadelphia Eagles upset the New England Patriots, though that figure was down 7% from the year before. 

While the NFL's viewing leadership seems to be safe for now, the concerns about player safety are a legitimate threat. Some parents are dissuading their kids from playing the sport, while others simply see the sport as abusive and dangerous. And those same safety concerns have provoked rule changes that some believe are making the sport more boring to watch.

The NFL should be the sports viewership leader for the foreseeable future in the U.S., but the NBA could surpass it by some measurements over the next generation if the current trend persists. 

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Jeremy Bowman owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.