Baseball's long-delayed debut sets TV ratings records on ESPN

FILE PHOTO: Jul 23, 2020; Washington, DC, USA; National Institute of of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci greets Washington Nationals relief pitcher Sean Doolittle (63) after throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before MLB Opening Day between the New York Yankees and the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park/Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The opening night of Major League Baseball’s virus-shortened 2020 season set TV viewership records for Walt Disney Co’s ESPN sports channel, the network said on Friday.

Four million people, on average, watched the New York Yankees beat defending champions the Washington Nationals on Thursday in the first game of a season delayed by four months due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It was the biggest opening-night audience on record, at more than triple the number of people who tuned in for the first game of the 2019 season, ESPN said in a statement. Overall, it was the highest-rated Major League Baseball game on any network since 2011.

The return of America’s national pastime marked a key moment for sports-starved fans and for ESPN, which has had few major events to broadcast since mid-March. The network scrambled to fill time with classic games and fringe sports such as stone-skipping competitions, and its ratings plummeted.

In Washington on Thursday, an unusual scene unfolded as players competed in a stadium devoid of fans, one of many precautions against COVID-19. Artificial crowd noise was piped over loudspeakers. The Yankees won 4-1 in a game shortened by a thunderstorm.

A second game featuring the San Francisco Giants battling the Los Angeles Dodgers drew nearly 2.8 million viewers on average, a record for a regular-season late-night game, ESPN said. At Dodger Stadium, rows of seats were filled with cardboard cutouts of fans. The Dodgers prevailed 8-1.

Baseball season continues on Friday with games airing on ESPN, the Fox broadcast channel and the MLB Network.

Major League Baseball teams will play 60 regular-season games this year rather than the typical 162.

The National Basketball Association, meanwhile, has started exhibition competitions and is scheduled to resume regular games on Thursday.

Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Chris Reese and Leslie Adler