How Much Live Sports Dominated Cable TV Ratings in 2023-24

ESPN ran a promotional campaign in the mid-2000s called “Without Sports” that posited the world would be less interesting and less connected in the absence of athletic competition (and, of course, ESPN’s exhaustive coverage of it).

The 2024 version of that campaign might go something like, “Without sports, would anyone be watching cable?” The answer is yes — but in far smaller numbers than in a landscape where live sports are abundantly available via cable and satellite providers.

Nielsen’s seven-day ratings for the 2023-24 TV season show sports dominating the top of the rankings among all viewers and the key ad-sales demographic of adults 18-49. In total viewers, live sports telecasts — led by ESPN’s Monday Night Football with 7.38 million viewers (not including simulcasts on ABC) — capture nine of the top 10 spots and 12 of the top 20 among primetime cable shows, counting titles with at least three telecasts. NBA playoffs coverage on ESPN and TNT, Major League Baseball’s postseason and the NCAA women’s basketball tournament all rank in the top 10.

‘Monday Night Football’ announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman

Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

It’s not until the No. 10 spot that a non-sports show, History Channel’s The Curse of Oak Island, shows up. Three more sports programs come ahead of the second non-sports show in the top 20, Hallmark‘s When Calls the Heart. News programming takes four of the final six spots.

Removing sports from the ledger puts The Curse of Oak Island and When Calls the Heart in the top two spots, but their viewer averages — 3.14 million and 2.77 million — are less than half of the top sports events. (For comparison, those two shows would rank 75th and 83rd among broadcast network series in 2023-24.) Primetime shows on Fox News and MSNBC hold six of the top 20 slots, with the rest distributed among History, Hallmark, TLC, Discovery, HGTV, USA and Bravo.

Among adults under 50, sports is even more dominant. Fourteen of the top 15 shows with adults 18-49 are live sports, and the 15th — WWE Monday Night Raw on USA — is also an athletic competition (albeit one with predetermined outcomes). TLC’s Sister Wives and Bravo’s Vanderpump Rules are the only sports-free shows to rank in the top 20 among adults 18-49.

Below are the top 20 primetime cable shows for the 2023-24 season based on Nielsen’s seven-day ratings (which don’t include streaming), with and without sports in the mix.

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