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Tops of 2023: Sports

5 minute read | December 2023

Few things engage audiences like sports do, and 2023 did not disappoint. Headlines across the world of sports have been ample, and each of them raised the profile of sports to new heights with fans, sponsors and advertisers. 

Select highlights include:

  • The final in the ninth FIFA Women’s World Cup was the first to not feature either the U.S. or Germany.
  • The 2023 MLS season was the first in a new, 10-year TV rights deal with Apple TV.
  • Lionel Messi kicked off his arrival at Inter Miami FC by scoring a game-winning free kick in this year’s Leagues Cup just six days after his deal with the MLS club was announced.
  • The introduction of a pitch clock shortened MLB games by an average of 24 minutes.   
  • The NFL Sunday Ticket made its debut on YouTube.
  • The Olympics announced four new sports for the 2024 summer games in Paris: Breaking, sport climbing, surfing and skateboarding.
  • Sports Illustrated named Coach Prime the Sportsperson of the Year after his first year of coaching the University of Colorado football team.
  • The budding romance between Taylor Swift and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce has amplified the profile of the NFL and its games.

Headlines aside, audience engagement with sports on TV remained a major pastime this year, with fans in the U.S. spending more than 1.7 trillion minutes watching games from the five most-watched U.S. sports leagues. While impressive in aggregate, time spent watching NFL games accounted for 55% of the total.

From a viewership perspective, nothing attracts audiences like the Super Bowl, and the matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles for Super Bowl LVII was the second-most watched game in league history. In total, audiences watched just under 48 billion minutes of the matchup. For context, viewers spent 52 billion minutes in 2022 watching Stranger Things, the year’s most-streamed program. And given the immense popularity of the NFL, playoff and Thanksgiving games accounted for the other nine most-watched games of the year. And what’s more, this year’s Thanksgiving games all attracted significant percentages of viewers who watched away from home.

In addition to satiating the needs of football fans, this year’s NFL games are helping fill the void caused by a lack of new primetime programming as a result of the writers strike. Compared with last year, all of this season’s Monday Night Football games are being aired on ABC in addition to ESPN and ESPN2—making it the only day of the week with one game that’s aired on multiple channels. 

The adjustment has been a boon for viewership, with the games on ABC attracting larger audiences than the traditional primetime programming did a year earlier. The week 4 matchup this year, for example, had an audience of 8.7 million on ABC, compared with an audience of 5.7 million for the two programs that ran at the same time on ABC a year earlier. And the Taylor Swift-Travis Kelce romance is attracting more female viewers.  

Sponsorships deliver significant value for brands

Fans weren’t alone in enjoying the action of the 2023 year in sports. Brands, always eager to partner with opportunities that broaden their exposure with new and existing audiences, continued to benefit from the growing sponsorship opportunities available to them. 2023 was the inaugural year for sponsorship patches on baseball team uniforms, and two of the year’s most valuable brand activations were on MLB jerseys. Across the league, Avnet benefited the most, aided by the fact that its sponsorship involved the Diamondbacks, who competed in the World Series. In total, the top 10 most valuable sports sponsorships delivered more than $259 million in media value1 for brands in 2023.

Brands aren’t the only beneficiaries of the exposure that media delivers to the sports world. The teams themselves also benefit, especially when it comes to social media. And while the Golden State Warriors have perennially been the leader in social media value, Lionel Messi joining Inter Miami FC catapulted the MLS squad to the top of the list this year. In fact, the average simulated value2 of a post for the team was more than twice that of one from the Warriors.

Well-positioned for 2024, the sports industry remains a fixture with a growing fanbase of audiences and brands. The undeniable appeal of sports, combined with audiences’ growing engagement with streaming content, however, has amplified the competition for broadcasting rights—a factor that could affect viewership among casual viewers. 

For true NFL fans, for example, watching every game requires access to several traditional broadcast channels, access to Amazon Prime Video and a subscription to the Sunday Ticket on YouTube. Similarly, New York Yankee fans needed access to broadcast, cable, Amazon Prime and Apple TV if they wanted to see all the action during the 2023 season. True sports fans will typically go where the action is, but holistic sports viewing growth will be tough to come by in an a la carte, game-by-game approach.

Through the lens of the audience, finding ways to ease sports viewers’ transition to streaming will be critical. The way in which ESPN is approaching NHL games is a good example, as it provides access to more than 1,050 out-of-market games from every team on its subscription ESPN+ service, while broadcasting another 100 games exclusively across ESPN, ESPN+, Hulu and ABC. The Apple TV-MLS deal is another stand-out, as it provides a consistent service and experience for nearly all MLS games. Sports remain the biggest draw for TV audiences, but ensuring that they can find the games they want without having to continue adding services and fees will be critical in the long run.


1 Nielsen Sports’ Quality Index Media Value is the calculated media value of the live broadcast exposure received by the sponsor.

2Simulated social media value refers to the value of a post if a team were to sell a sponsorship for it.

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