With NBA national TV ratings struggling again early, th…

With NBA national TV ratings struggling again early, the league should consider some radical ideas to better position itself in the marketplace. One thought that has been broached in league circles, according to sources, would be to move the start of the schedule back to closer to Thanksgiving or, even more drastically, Christmas, in combination with a potential reduction from 82 games and some sort of in-season tournament.

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A target date to institute this new thinking could be 2021-22 when the NBA celebrates its 75th season. It would make sense to potentially move to a 75-game season and introduce the still-to-be-determined tournament at that point. There are financial and scheduling issues that would have to be considered. Would the owners and players be willing to reduce revenue with fewer games? Would they be able to structure the season to have the Finals still finish in June? Would they be amenable to having the championship in July or even August?
TNT averaged a 0.6 rating and 909,000 viewers for Mavericks-Knicks and a 0.49 and 766,000 for Nets-Nuggets Thursday, marking the network’s sixth-straight NBA games with fewer than a million viewers. Including ESPN, nine games have failed to crack the million viewer mark thus far, compared to 19 all of last season. Ratings fell 22% and viewership 18% for New York’s win (vs. Rockets-Thunder: 0.7, 1.12M); Denver’s win sank 51% in both measures (vs. Bucks-Warriors: 1.0, 1.57M). Eight of ten TNT games have declined from last year.
Ben Fischer: WarnerMedia Chair Jeff Zucker on NBA ratings weakness this season: “I think the combination of injuries and sitting out has been an issue, and I think that’s concern, and hopefully that will get addressed over time.... "I think the league has some influence over teams and i would like them to exert that influence." WarnerMedia Chair Jeff Zucker on load management in the NBA. #SBJSMT
NBA officials said while they had buy-in from the networks for placing the Raptors on Opening Night and Christmas, overall the league wanted the Raptors on national TV more than either network wanted to have them.
TNT and ESPN don’t even broadcast in Canada. They do not get the benefit of access to the largest swath of Raptors fans — Canadians. The Raptors, by the way, could still be a very good team in the East this season, but from a ratings standpoint, they do not have a star like Leonard nor are they expected to repeat as champs. That’s the problem. “What a lot of people like to cling to is because the Raptors don’t play in the United States, it makes them ratings challenged,” Vertino said. “But my argument would be they’re a compelling team and they play a great and exciting brand of basketball, and to me, maybe we can flip it and say, ‘Maybe we can open some more eyes here that weren’t going to watch in the first place. They’re on this platform for a reason.’”
1. The 2019 WNBA Finals showcased the best of the league — superb playmaking, athleticism and taut competition. The series between the Washington Mystics and Connecticut Sun extended to a full five games before Washington claimed the franchise’s first title. So how was the viewership for the series? Very disappointing, especially given the quality of the games. Game 5 of the WNBA Finals between the Mystics and Sun averaged 440,000 viewers on ESPN2. That was down from last year’s Storm-Mystics clinching Game 3 (519,000 on ESPN2) and down 51 percent from the 2017 clincher (907,000 on ESPN).
Per Sports Media Watch: The five-game Finals averaged 381,000 viewers on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, the least-watched Finals since 2013 (Minnesota-Atlanta averaged 315,000). Viewership declined 21 percent from last year’s Storm-Mystics sweep (481,000) and 32 percent from the Lynx-Sparks in 2017 (559,000).
The annual speech isn’t available to the public, so it tends to contain franker messaging than you might find in Adam Silver’s news conferences. This year was no exception. While the NBA has publicly indicated that there’s been a dropoff in ratings, that message gets conveyed with subtlety. In person, with the coaches, Silver was blunt, according to sources at the meeting. Viewership is down, said the commissioner, down so significantly that he badly needs the help of the men present. They must do what it takes to aid the occasionally intrusive TV broadcasts, even if that means going outside their comfort zones.
One of the specific challenges for the NBA this year — which meant a significant task for Carelli and his crew — was to attack the decline in viewership from last season. Regular-season game telecasts across ABC, ESPN, TNT and NBA TV in 2018-19 averaged 1.2 million viewers, down 5 percent from the previous season. (NBA games were still up 3 percent from two seasons ago.) Particularly problematic was the viewership of the early windows of NBA national TV doubleheaders. Last year, per Sports Business Daily, TNT saw a 23 percent drop in viewership for the early windows in a doubleheader. ESPN had an 11 percent drop in the early window for its doubleheader games.
The good news for BIG3? A league consisting of grizzled 30 and 40-something players, some with greybeards, has become surprisingly popular with millennials and Generation Z, both on TV and social media. Now BIG3’s eyeing events in China and countries where basketball is growing. “It is amazing when you think about it. We have the oldest players — and the youngest audience,” Kwatinetz said.
The NBA’s television doldrums so far this season are happening at the local level, too, where regional sports network ratings from 28 U.S.-based teams had dropped 10 percent on average at the All-Star break compared to the same point last year. Overall, most of the country’s RSNs have posted ratings gains this season; 15 have seen TV ratings increases in the first part of the season, and 13 have seen TV ratings decreases. (Information for Memphis and Toronto was not available at press time.) But it was the size of the decreases — and the big markets where they occurred — that caused the overall RSN average to drop by double digits through Feb. 12.
According to Nielsen, the Mavericks enjoyed the highest regional TV ratings surge in the NBA this season. Dallas' 86 percent increases in viewership and ratings from last season to this season on Fox Sports Southwest surpassed No. 2 Denver's 77 percent increases. The average rating of Mavericks games on FSSW increased from 0.7 to 1.3. The numbers no doubt are a reflection of local excitement generated by the addition and play of rookie Luka Doncic, as well as late-season interest in the final games of Dirk Nowitzki's illustrious 21-season career.
TV ratings for games are down this season. The All-Star Game ratings were down. Silver said the league is struggling to reach the millions of fans from the target age 18-34 demographic who don't have cable or streaming packages. They care about the league but don't build the habit of watching games on TV or in person, a core tenet of creating revenue. "You see a tweet saying, 'Warriors-Rockets great matchup, Harden is going for 60.' The fact [is] you can't just [click] and get that game," Silver said. "That transactional friction has to be eliminated. We're being paid a lot of money to gate our content right now [by TV partners]. What's happening is demand and supply aren't meeting."
he NBA’s television doldrums so far this season are happening at the local level, too, where regional sports network ratings from 28 U.S.-based teams had dropped 10 percent on average at the All-Star break compared to the same point last year. Overall, most of the country’s RSNs have posted ratings gains this season; 15 have seen TV ratings increases in the first part of the season, and 13 have seen TV ratings decreases. (Information for Memphis and Toronto was not available at press time.)
The drop-off is most pronounced in some of the league’s biggest markets, like New York (down 41 percent on MSG Network), Chicago (down 36 percent on NBC Sports Chicago) and Boston (down 27 percent on NBC Sports Boston). Ratings for Bulls games in Chicago are at their lowest point in at least 13 years as the team has struggled on the court with one of the NBA’s worst records.
More than halfway through the regular season, NBA ratings have fallen. The real plummet has been on Turner, which started with a LeBron-less opening night and has been playing from behind ever since. The network is down 22 percent compared to this point last year.
ESPN is also off, but just 5 percent. ABC was up 5 percent on Christmas Day in a slate that was headlined in prime time by James’ Lakers against the Warriors. ABC tips off its weekly Saturday night coverage this weekend, which will offer a truer gauge.
The NBA feels it is on the upswing as Turner/ESPN/ABC were up 3 percent in December compared to November. Maybe this will be a trend, but so far — like the teams he plays on — the viewing might be a little too overdependent on James.
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