Live sports coverage has been fairly formulaic since the 1970s. Games feature a singular play-by-play announcer, at least one color commentator, and more often than not a sideline reporter. The top networks in the US haven’t deviated much from this recipe because, by and large, ratings have remained high for the four major sports while utilizing these roles in the booth and on the field. Forbes categorizes the NFL as a ratings behemoth, NBA viewership has ticked up in recent years, MLB’s recent upgrades to pace have resulted in better TV ratings, and the NHL is coming off its best TV ratings for the first and second rounds ever.
While improved TV ratings incentivize networks to stick to the script, there is still room to experiment in simulcasts. If that word feels a tiny bit futuristic, I can assure you it is not. Simulcasts refer to the production and broadcasting of an event through multiple mediums or channels simultaneously. Separate television and radio broadcasts have existed in Major League Baseball since the late 1950s. While select games were broadcast on national television, team's local radio broadcasts continued to provide play-by-play and color commentary.
Today, networks have begun exploring multichannel simulcasts to spice up their coverage. Attracting new audiences has been the name of the game and some of the early returns have been significant. For example, during this year’s NBA Finals, ESPN’s “Stephen A’s World” drew 544,000 additional viewers by providing an alternate game presentation. The numbers were even better for ESPN’s alternative presentation of the Women’s Basketball National Championship Game between LSU and Iowa. “The Bird & Taurasi Show,” one of multiple Women’s Final Four “MegaCast” options, drew in 742,000 added viewers.
These basketball breakthroughs came close to matching the gold standard in simulcast ratings, ESPN’s “Manningcast.” The show, featuring Eli and Peyton Manning as its co-hosts, debuted on September 13, 2021. As alternative coverage to the Monday Night Football between the Baltimore Ravens and Las Vegas Raiders, the show drew 800,000 viewers. As it turns out, they were just getting started. Here are the top five Manningcast episodes by the overall audience.
1. New York Giants at Kansas City Chiefs (Nov 1, 2021) 1.96 million viewers
Generally, when a 2-5 team goes on the road to play a 3-4 team, it’s not appointment television. But in the case of the Manningcast’s fifth episode, this was a ratings bonanza. It’s nice that they had a standalone game featuring Patrick Mahomes, but this one really came down to the guests. Jon Stewart, Michael Strahan, Josh Allen and Michael Irvin joined the show along the way and the game hung in the balance until the final minute. The Chiefs escaped with a 20-17 win and the show had a new record for total viewers.
2. Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys (Sept 27, 2021) 1.89 million viewers
America’s Team pummeled their rivals on national television, showcasing one of Dak Prescott’s best games as a pro (21-for-26, 3 Passing TDs). On ESPN2, the Manningcast one-upped the action on the field by delighting viewers with a who’s who of sporting legends. Matthew Stafford, LeBron James, Nick Saban and Chris Long all appeared on the show. The fifteen-minute segment between the Mannings and Nick Saban was particularly memorable. Saban’s segment was filled with jokes, football shop talk, and plenty of respect between the three football legends.
3. Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers (Sept 20, 2021) 1.86 million viewers
This was the episode when ESPN knew they had a hit on their hands. After a solid debut (800k), the Manningcast experienced a 132.5% increase week-over-week with their massive Week 2 ratings. Their guests included Brett Favre, Rob Gronkowski, Patrick Willis and Pat McAfee, making for an exciting and humorous experience end-to-end. They may have done even better if it had not been for a Packer blowout victory. Detroit was held scoreless in the second half and fell 35-17.
4. Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Jan 16, 2023) 1.68 million viewers
The second season of the Manningcast saw a steady decline in viewership down the stretch, but its playoff debut bumped Peyton and Eli back up to respectable numbers. In addition to calling Tom Brady’s last game, the Mannings welcomed on Deion Sanders, Dan Campbell and Tedy Bruschi. Sanders’ segment was particularly interesting as the brothers asked him questions about his new job (Head Coach of University Colorado) and his NFL legacy.
T-5. New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills (Dec 6, 2021) 1.63 million viewers
This AFC showdown was destined to drive ratings. The 8-4 Patriots traveling to Western New York to take on a 7-4 Bills team in front of its fervent fans. The Mannings brought on an eclectic trio for their broadcast. David Letterman, Aqib Talib and Joe Buck all spent a big chunk of time on the program. Letterman roasted Bill Belichick during his segment, but the big comedic takedown came late in the game when Joe Buck burned Peyton for his blowout loss in the Super Bowl to Seattle.
T-5. Los Angeles Rams at San Francisco 49ers (Oct 3, 2022) 1.63 million viewers
The defending Super Bowl champions against an up-and-coming divisional rival was the backdrop for this one, but it was the trio of guests that proved to be most entertaining. The 49ers dispatched the Rams with ease 24-9, but Jalen Hurts, Steph Curry and Jon Hamm kept viewers from changing the channel. Hamm did such a good job on the show that Saturday Night Live ended up spoofing his appearance during a cold open a few weeks later.
All of the television ratings data was obtained by our veteran researcher, Dan Tracey. Sources included press releases from ESPN/ABC, quotes made on the record by TV executives, and third-party reporting from sources including Sports Illustrated, ESPN, TheFutonCritic.com, and Boston.com. The article itself was written by Michael Calabrese, an editor at OLBG with over 15 years of sports journalism experience.
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