Michael Jordan hasn’t played professional basketball in two decades, but he’s still breaking records.
The Last Dance became ESPN’s highest-rated documentary in its history Sunday night, averaging 6.1 million viewers during its premiere, the network announced in a statement on Monday.
Parts one and two of the retelling of Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls aired consecutively Sunday night, providing desperately needed content for sports fans who have gone without live games since March 11, when the NBA became the first major American professional league to suspend its season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The documentary could not be coming along at a more urgent time for ESPN and the NBA, which both find themselves in turmoil in a world where live sports have been forced to go on hold. The documentary was originally slated to run in June, in sync with the NBA Finals that would have tipped off around the same time. But with any hope toward even a truncated postseason diminishing with each passing day, ESPN pushed up the premiere date to this past weekend, on what would have been the second day of the 2020 NBA Playoffs.
Now, basketball fans are filling the hours they would have spent watching LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard with footage and interviews of their 1990s counterparts reliving their heydays.
The Last Dance is the culmination of Jordan and the Bulls granting an NBA Entertainment camera crew access to document what was widely, and correctly, believed to be the final season of their heralded dynasty. According to ESPN and the film’s producers, that footage gathered both dust and a mythic reputation as it and the network waited for the now largely reclusive Jordan to grant it his blessing to let it see the light of day.
The milestone ratings should not come as much of a surprise for anyone who monitored social media during the film’s premiere on Sunday. The NBA is unmatched when it comes to its social footprint and all those followers wasted no time reigniting their passion with seemingly every fan, player, and commentator alive live-tweeting the beginnings of the 1997-1998 campaign as though it were playing out in real-time.
With eight more installments still left to air over the next month, the buzz around the documentary could grow even louder, as sports fans grow even more restless without new events to watch. And with Jordan’s Bulls here to take advantage of the boredom, they'll see if the spell they cast over 1990s sports audiences still captivates today’s modern viewers.
It’s a lesson the league, its media partners, and even the Looney Tunes have all learned over the last 20 years, and one the sports world was reminded of yet again this weekend: When in doubt and in need of a last-second savior, look to Michael Jordan.