With all major sports on pause, ESPN network channels have been hard-pressed to find content to broadcast. Thankfully someone at the cable sports channel had a brilliant idea with “The Last Dance,” a docuseries track the development, heyday, and legacy of one of the NBA’s premier franchise runs: the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan.
Jordan’s Bulls won six titles, two three-peat championships with very different teams, creating some timeless moments that’ve made their way into basketball lore along the way: The Flu Game, The Shrug, and The Shot are standout examples.
The debut night for “The Last Dance” scored a win as ESPN’s most-viewed documentary ever, earning 6.1 million live viewers. Of course, it was huge in Chicago, but it was big pretty much everywhere people loved basketball, especially in the coveted 18-49 market demo. The program checks all the right boxes for sports fans as well as those who crave stories around their favorite players. There are, of course, standout moments, because this is a story about some of the best players ever, competing against equally talented and storied players. It’s also about team play and individual effort, as the Bulls found ways to beat very different opponents with a very different cast of players.
The series is also about some of the biggest and most popular personalities in sports. Jordan is still one of the most celebrated sports figures—and marketable brands—and his supporting cast includes spotlight magnets like Dennis Rodman.
These dynamics, as well as the deep dive into behind-the-scenes drama, have kept viewers coming back, which was a risk, given this series is longer than some entire seasons of streaming content. It’s a lot for viewers to take in, but it’s also something sports fans love at a time when there are no new live sports, and the only thing to talk about is the NFL draft, or if and when baseball is starting up again.
Watching ESPN and other sports networks work to keep fans engaged in this time has been a compelling exercise in crisis communication of a different kind. No one did anything to create this crisis. There’s just not that much happening—so what can they report? And, now that many are working from home, the group interaction dynamic that keeps some watching is strained. Anchors are staying positive, while not pretending this is anything close to business as usual. That’s a good approach, and it got them here, with the draft happening and baseball nearly back, on the cusp of finally having something to talk about again.