Pickleball Slam on ESPN Beats Out MLB, NHL, NBA in TV Ratings Race

The inaugural Pickleball Slam went off without a hitch this Sunday, as the much-ballyhooed “fastest-growing sport in the U.S.” put together a top 10 performance in both of the key TV demos.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the matchup of four grizzled tennis greats made short work of much of last week’s TV sports lineup, topping no fewer than 79 broadcast and cable telecasts among members of the adults 18-49 demo. Featuring a pair of singles matches and a doubles showdown pitting Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick against John McEnroe and Michael Chang, ESPN’s coverage of the Pickleball Slam averaged 237,000 adults under 50, tying TNT’s Bruins-Blues game as Sunday’s fifth highest-rated sporting event.

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Thirty-five percent of the Slam audience fell in with the 18-49 set, which is a favorable ratio for a Sunday afternoon in early April. By comparison, only 15% of the people who watch broadcast TV in primetime are part of the target demo.

The Slam also tied the aforementioned Bruins-Blues telecast for fifth place among adults 25-54, drawing just shy of 280,000 viewers in that demo.

When viewed within the context of the entire programming week (March 27-April 2), the Slam out-delivered 13 nationally televised MLB games, seven NBA matchups and five NHL games. The exhibition also beat out a mixed bag of international soccer matches, including airings from the Premier League, Liga MX, Bundesliga and MLS, while running roughshod over the week’s selection of XFL games.

Not only did the Slam blow out spring football in the advertiser-coveted demos, but it also put up stronger numbers among the total-viewers metric. Clocking in at just under two hours and 30 minutes, the event averaged 669,000 viewers, peaking at 796,000 during the concluding doubles match. By way of comparison, the audience for ESPN’s lead-out coverage of the XFL’s Battlehawks-Roughnecks game (502,000) was 25% smaller than the pickleball crowd.

Hosted by the Seminole Hard Rock Casino & Hotel in Hollywood, Florida, Sunday’s pickleball production was the first of five tournaments that will be backed by the hospitality chain. While ESPN has yet to commit to a follow-up Slam, event organizer and Horizon Sports & Experiences co-CEO David Levy is confident the first batch of numbers should be sufficient to secure another air date.

In terms of the competition itself, the pairing of Agassi/Roddick and McEnroe/Chang offered an ideal level of pickleball parity, as the former duo squeaked by their counterparts in the doubles match by a tight margin (21-15, 21-23, 12-10). In so doing, Agassi and Roddick won the $1 million purse—a windfall that sold Johnny Mac on the concept.

Speaking to the Miami Herald a month before the contest, the 64-year-old McEnroe launched into one of his characteristically dyspeptic grumbling sessions, saying that he didn’t particularly care for the sport. Whatever the opposite of a hype man is, McEnroe fits the bill perfectly; the seven-time Grand Slam singles champion likened televised pickleball to “watching ping-pong” before serving up the ultimate pull quote. To wit: “If I hear one more time that pickleball is the fastest-growing sport, I’m gonna throw up.”

In the days leading up to Sunday’s telecast, Levy’s team inked K-Swiss as the official footwear sponsor of the first-ever Slam. Other brands that backed the opener include Franklin Sports, Athletic Greens and Subway.

Along with the official sponsors, among the top-spending advertisers were NetJets, State Farm, Sleep Number, Reese’s, Amazon Studios and Capital One, per estimates. Disney also used the Slam as a means to promote ABC’s afternoon broadcast of the NCAA Division I women’s basketball championship between LSU and Iowa. All told, the Slam doubled the amount of ad revenue ESPN collected during the previous week’s analogous time slot.

According to iSpot, the Slam served up 46.8 million adult advertising impressions for ESPN.

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