'The Last Dance' was an unexpected savior for ESPN during coronavirus

Michael Jordan (L) and Chicago Bulls head coach Phil Jackson (R) Most Valuable Player trophy (L) and the Larry O'Brian trophy (R) 14 June after winning game six of the NBA Finals with the Utah Jazz at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, UT. The Bulls won the game 87-86 to take their sixth NBA championship.

With sports suspended, ESPN has cobbled together a schedule that includes classic games, studio shows and films — the most popular of which was "The Last Dance."

The network's docuseries about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls isn't a sporting event, but it nabbed event-sized ratings for ESPN, averaging 5.6 million viewers over its 10-episode run, which made it the most watched documentary ever for ESPN. To give that number some context, a Sunday Night Baseball game between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees last year brought in roughly 2 million viewers.

Now, it's not very hard to get viewers to watch a documentary about the most popular athlete in history amid a pandemic that's forcing everyone to stay home, but "The Last Dance" has been an unexpected savior for ESPN by acting as a programming tourniquet. It helped ESPN bring in sports-like ratings during a time when sports are on hold.

"We knew it would be a big deal, even if it had gone as we had planned. But obviously as the events of the last few months have unfolded and live sports largely disappeared, it's taken on a whole new importance to us," Connor Schell, ESPN's executive vice president of content, told CNN Business.

Schell added that at a time when people are starving for sports, "The Last Dance" was able to give fans "a reason to come together on Sunday nights."

"I've felt really good about ESPN's programming overall during this crisis," he said. "But we're not naive enough to say that 'The Last Dance' sitting in the middle of this hasn't been really important to our connection to our audience and the way people have engaged with our brand."

A sporting event without sports

ESPN announced in March that the series' premiere would move up to April from June to fill the void left behind by live sports. The strategy paid off.

The documentary spawned memes, podcasts and social chatter on Twitter in the same way an NBA game would. "The Last Dance" filled in for sports so well that gambling sites even offered prop bets for its final episodes.

However, moving the docuseries wasn't easy, according to Schell.

After the sports world came to a halt, the network, director Jason Hehir and others associated with the series discussed what it would take to move its release up two months.

Schell said the biggest challenge was that most of the series was still in post-production when the outbreak hit. Hehir and his team had to finish editing the series remotely from their homes.

Away from the big ratings, "The Last Dance" also gave ESPN something to talk about on its studio shows.

SportsCenter would interview sportswriters, experts and former athletes featured on the series after new episodes of "The Last Dance" — just like a post-game show would cover an actual game.

"Some of that's strategic, some of it's out of necessity," Schell said. "We made a conscious effort on Sunday nights with SportsCenter to continue the experience... If we can hold that viewer's attention for another hour, that's what a programmer aspires to do."

Patrick Crakes, a media consultant and former Fox Sports executive, noted that "The Last Dance" is a perfect example of how ESPN's resources and scale allowed it to adjust to the crisis on the fly.

"They get hit hard, but they look at what they've got, and they say, 'let's figure out how to leverage our assets in a different way. We may not be able to make ourselves whole, because we don't have sporting events, but we certainly don't have to sit still and take it,'" he said.

Going from Michael Jordan to Lance Armstrong

Crakes believes that people love sports because it's the "human drama playing out in the moment" but in the absence of sports, films that "tell those stories in a high-quality way is arguably the next best thing."

ESPN is hoping audiences are ready to hear more of those stories.

The network is airing three new documentaries over the next few weeks from its "30 for 30" film brand. The films will cover the lives of infamous cyclist Lance Armstrong and martial artist Bruce Lee as well as the 1998 home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

"What we have done over a decade plus is try to build with each project more and more credibility with our audience," Schell said. "We want the film brand to mean quality, so even if you're not interested in the subject matter, please trust us because the next project will hopefully be as good or better as the one that came before."

But will audiences embrace those stories the way they did Jordan's? That's what ESPN needs to figure out, according to Crakes.

"'The Last Dance' was a huge hit. It's engrained itself in the culture. I mean some people are going to remember this crisis and they're also going to remember the Jordan documentary with it," he said. "But now how does the network take advantage of what they've gotten? That's what ESPN needs to figure out until sports return."

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