The NBA has struggled with viewership, with a bit of a …

The NBA has struggled with viewership, with a bit of a Steph Curry bump lately, but the overall decline could be a factor in the league’s next media rights cash grab. The NBA currently gets $24 billion combined over the nine-year media rights deals with ESPN and Turner Sports that end in 2024-25. Like other sports, the league likely will have extensions or fresh rights contracts in place before then. The NBA reportedly is seeking $75 billion in total for its next deals. Eyeball count is among the factors that will dictate if that’s a realistic goal, but even in decline, live sports TV remains the most-watched programming. And that’s what advertisers ultimately want.

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At the same time, the numbers from this season speak to where the NBA is at, relative to other sports. Sports Media Watch put out a top-10 list of most-watched non-football games since sports went on hiatus, and the NBA is not on there. That’s sort of amazing, considering pro basketball’s widely agreed on status as the country’s second-most-popular sport.
ESPN’s “Marvel”-themed NBA coverage was no match for the traditional broadcast, but pulled decent numbers by the standards of an alternate presentation. Monday’s Warriors-Pelicans NBA regular season game averaged a combined 1.39 million viewers across ESPN and ESPN2, with the traditional ESPN broadcast (1.12M) topping the “Marvel”-themed ESPN2 simulcast (274K) by more than 300 percent. Keep in mind that the “Marvel” simulcast also aired on ESPN+, which is not measured by Nielsen.
Lakers-Mavericks averaged a 1.1 rating and 1.89 million viewers on ABC’s NBA Saturday Primetime last weekend, ranking second-to-last among the network’s eight Saturday night games this season. Mavericks-Nets had 1.85 million in February. The same matchup averaged a 0.9 and 1.37 million on TNT last Thursday, the network’s most-watched game since Nets-Lakers on February 18 (1.94M). Sixers-Bucks had a 0.6 and 915,000 earlier in the night.
In other action, ESPN pulled a 0.9 and 1.45 million for Nuggets-Warriors and a 0.7 and 1.15 million for Nets-Celtics last Friday; a 0.6 and 1.06 million for Sixers-Bucks and 0.5 and 797,000 for Raptors-Knicks on Saturday; and a 0.9 and 1.36 million for Suns-Nets and 0.6 and 953,000 for Celtics-Hornets on Sunday. TNT drew 984,000 for Mavericks-Warriors on Tuesday.
You can see that dynamic reflected in television viewership numbers. Last Sunday’s exciting Warriors-Celtics game garnered a hair under 2.5 million viewers on ABC, the NBA’s largest audience since the Warriors were soundly beaten by the Nets on Feb. 13. Then, on cable at ESPN, the Warriors’ Monday win over the Sixers drew a hearty 1.47 million, the NBA’s largest audience on that medium since February. These numbers might not be eye-popping in the historical TV context, but in this particular season? Unexpected paydirt. For an extreme point of comparison that speaks to pandemic season expectations, on Tuesday, April 13, the Clippers-Pacers game drew an anemic 656,000 on TNT. (Data via Showbuzz.)
Stephen Curry’s recent hot streak is moving the NBA ratings needle. Warriors-Celtics averaged a 1.4 rating and 2.49 million viewers on ABC’s NBA Saturday Primetime over the weekend, the highest rated and most-watched NBA telecast — outside of the All-Star Game — since Nets-Warriors on February 13 (1.5, 2.56M). Boston’s narrow win, which saw Curry score 47 points in defeat, delivered the ninth-largest audience of the season. Golden State has played in five of the top ten games — more than any other team, including the Lakers (four).
So depleted that Dennis Schröder is being featured in network promos, the Lakers nonetheless remain the biggest draw in the NBA. The shorthanded Lakers’ surprising rout of the Nets averaged a 1.2 rating and 2.02 million viewers on ABC’s NBA Saturday Primetime last weekend, the league’s largest audience — excluding the All-Star Game — since February 21 (Celtics-Pelicans: 1.4, 2.26M). The team’s subsequent national TV appearance against the Celtics scored 1.14 million viewers on TNT Thursday night, the network’s most-watched game in more than a month (3/11 Warriors-Clippers: 1.25M).
The jury is still out on the ESPN and TNT games, but recent results have been bad. Sports media writer Ryan Glasspiegel observed that Wednesday’s ESPN NBA games finished lower than the AEW, pro wrestling’s distant No. 2 brand. On Tuesday, TNT’s NBA doubleheader averaged a meager 724,000 viewers. Due in part to key injuries, this NBA season is losing steam as it nears the finish line.
What I do know: These results further confirm that the league promoted highly misleading messaging to media members back in January. You might recall a story from earlier this year on the NBA’s viewership being up an astounding 34% on ABC, TNT and ESPN. That news was widely shared in the sports media world, and seemed to beat back against the (sadly, true) narrative of the NBA’s long-term popularity wane.
The problem with the “ratings up!” story was a subtle one: The NBA was comparing a 2020-2021 time frame in which they just had their Christmas Day games sweepstakes against a 2019-2020 time frame in which the Christmas Day games had yet to occur. This would be like if the NFL held its Super Bowl a month earlier than last season, and then used the scheduling shift to claim that playoff viewership was way, way up in January versus last year. It’s obvious B.S., but ratings data can appear arcane to many, so disingenuous positive spin travels far. This dynamic is, frankly, one of the reasons why I keep coming back to the NBA viewership issue, despite the feathers it ruffles: It’s a topic on which the sport and broader media have some trouble telling the truth.
Sans LeBron James and Anthony Davis, last Sunday’s Lakers-Clippers NBA regular season game averaged a 0.95 rating and 1.76 million viewers on ABC — the network’s lowest rated and second-least watched game this season. Clippers-Bucks had 1.68 million in February. Ratings fell 18% but viewership increased 6% from the comparable 2019 game (Thunder-Timberwolves: 1.2, 1.66M). It was the teams’ least-watched meeting since a late night Christmas game in 2016 (1.61M). Their five previous national games (including two on Opening Night, one on opening night of the “bubble,” and one on Christmas) each averaged over three million.
In other action, ESPN averaged 1.16 million for Jazz-Suns (+37%) and 1.00 million for Pelicans-Nets (+15%) Wednesday, and TNT drew 855,000 for Bucks-Warriors (-35%) and 782,000 for Sixers-Celtics (+21%) Tuesday. The comparable days in 2019 were the final two days of the regular season.
Wednesday’s Bucks-Lakers NBA regular season game averaged 1.33 million viewers on ESPN, the league’s most-watched game since the All-Star break, despite the absence of Lakers stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Earlier in the night, Mavericks-Celtics drew 1.07 million. There were no comparable windows in 2019.
On Thursday, the Nets’ blowout of the Hornets averaged just 635,000 viewers on TNT — the least-watched game on ABC, ESPN or TNT this season. The game drew an additional 108,000 viewers on YES Network in New York. Nuggets-Clippers drew 889,000 later in the night. The games declined 60% and 47% respectively from the comparable 2019 doubleheader (Bucks-Sixers: 1.58M; Warriors-Lakers: 1.68M).
NFL, NBA, and MLB fans aged 18-34 said that they prefer watching highlights to full games, especially when compared to other demographics. Take the NFL, for example. Among football fans, 48 percent of 18-34 year-old NFL fans said they preferred clips to actual games, while only 20 percent of 35-49-year-olds said the same, and only 11 percent of fans over 50 agreed. There isn’t as much disparity in the other sports, especially when it comes to the NBA, where even 40 percent of 50+ hoops fans say they’d rather watch highlights than the full game.
An extended absence for LeBron James is bad news for the Lakers and the NBA’s television ratings. With James and Anthony Davis both out due to injury, the Lakers’ blowout loss to the Pelicans Tuesday night averaged 920,000 viewers on TNT — down 35% from Rockets-Bucks on the comparable night in 2019 (1.41M) and the least-watched Laker game on ESPN, ABC or TNT since James joined the team in 2018. The previous low was 970,000 for a 2019 Lakers-Jazz game in which James sat out.
In other recent NBA action, ESPN drew a 0.7 rating (-26%) and 1.15 million viewers (-17%) for Clippers-Mavericks and a 0.6 (-41%) and 931,000 (-37%) for Bucks-Sixers last Wednesday. TNT the previous night had a 0.6 and 1.03 million for Jazz-Celtics and a 0.6 and 983,000 for Pelicans-Blazers. Preceding the aforementioned Lakers-Warriors game on March 15, ESPN drew a 0.7 (-35%) and 1.13 million (-36%) for Knicks-Nets. Finally, Clippers-Pelicans had a 0.6 (-34%) and 1.01 million (-24%) on ESPN March 14. All comparisons are to 2019.
Thursday’s Warriors-Clippers NBA regular season game, in which Los Angeles led by as many as 39 points in the third quarter, averaged 1.25 million viewers on TNT — up 34% from Mavericks-Nuggets on the comparable night in 2019 (931K). There were no comparable games last year as the NBA season had been suspended.
In the final games before the All-Star break, TNT averaged 1.06 million for Heat-Pelicans Thursday night — down 31% from Clippers-Rockets last year (1.53M). The previous night, ESPN pulled 1.09 million for Nets-Rockets and 1.32 million for Warriors-Blazers, up 30% and down 10% respectively from last year’s comparable doubleheader (Pacers-Bucks: 839K; Pelicans-Mavericks: 1.47M).
The pandemic and the overall trend of people watching less broadcast and cable TV in general in recent years suggests Sunday’s game likely will not come close to the viewership numbers it used to generate. “I think it’ll be the lowest-rated and least-watched NBA All-Star Game ever,” said Jon Lewis, who’s crunched audience data at Sports Media Watch since 2006. “That’s really the way sports on TV are going. Plus, the players don’t even want to play in it.”
Stefan Bondy: Heard the Knicks crushed the Nets in the TV ratings last night. Also beat them Sunday when facing the lowly Timberwolves and Nets were playing the Clippers.
Celtics-Pelicans averaged a 1.4 rating and 2.26 million viewers on ABC’s NBA Sunday Showcase last weekend, up 17% in ratings and 14% in viewership from the first Sunday Showcase game last year, which aired on Super Bowl Sunday (Pelicans-Rockets: 1.2, 1.99M), but down 39% and 37% respectively from Celtics-Lakers on the same February weekend last year (2.3, 3.59M).
New Orleans’ comeback win was the top NBA game of a weekend that included the league’s highest profile teams. The previous night, Heat-Lakers drew a 1.3 and 2.20 million on ABC’s NBA Saturday Primetime — up 18% and 29% respectively from the same weekend last year (Sixers-Bucks: 1.1, 1.71M). On ESPN Sunday night, Nets-Clippers drew a 0.9 and 1.51 million.
The rise of European NBA players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic has led to significant viewership growth in major markets on the continent this season, league officials said this week. The growth in Europe is being fueled by a 15% increase in NBA League Pass subscriptions internationally, which makes games available to fans in more than 200 countries.
The NBA has always been a top-heavy league and that extends to team popularity. The following is an attempt to quantify that phenomenon. Ratings numbers are courtesy of Showbuzz. 1. Lakers: 1,505,167 (avg. viewership) The NBA’s Cadillac delivers yet again, and why shouldn’t it? You’ve got LeBron James, the league’s biggest brand and they’re defending champs. Of course, they’re going to lead everyone in viewership, and it’s not surprising that the margin is over 100,000 viewers.
2. Warriors: 1,367,250. When Steph Curry is playing, the Warriors are a top public team. They’re behind the Lakers here, but they’re also a far worse squad, with no hope of winning a title. Also, it should be noted that the Warriors played two highly-anticipated ESPN games against the Clippers that occurred concurrently with an especially insane news cycle (look up when those games were). In normal circumstances, those games probably do better by the hundreds of thousands. There’s an argument that all things being equal, Steph’s Warriors are a bigger draw than LeBron’s Lakers. That’s mostly a theoretical claim because, until Klay Thompson returns and some moves are made, all things will remain far from equal.
Ratings and viewership paled in comparison to Durant’s previous homecoming — his 2017 return to Oklahoma City as a member of the Warriors averaged a 3.4 and 6.04 million in the same Saturday Primetime window.
In other action, ESPN averaged a 0.8 and 1.27 million for Lakers-Nuggets and a 0.7 and 1.15 million for Blazers-Mavericks Sunday night. It also pulled a 0.8 and 1.26 million for Grizzlies-Lakers and a 0.6 and 1.04 million for Pelicans-Mavericks on Friday. Shifting to this week’s games, TNT drew just 984,000 for Nets-Suns and 943,000 for Pelicans-Grizzlies on Tuesday. Wednesday’s ESPN numbers were not immediately available.
Warriors-Mavericks averaged a 1.25 rating and 2.23 million viewers on ABC’s NBA Saturday Primetime last weekend, down 29% in ratings and 23% in viewership from Lakers-Warriors on the same weekend last year (1.8, 2.88M) and down 26% and 16% respectively from 2019 (Thunder-Rockets: 1.7, 2.67M). The previous night, ESPN posted a 0.8 (+8%) and 1.29 million (+14%) for Celtics-Clippers and a 0.7 (+13%) and 1.13 million (+14%) for Raptors-Nets. Shifting to this week, TNT drew just 893,000 viewers for Celtics-Jazz (-28%) and 891,000 for Rockets-Pelicans (-17%) on Tuesday.
Tuesday’s Clippers-Nets NBA regular season game averaged 1.66 million viewers on TNT, up 32% from the comparable February date last year (Bucks-Pelicans: 1.25M) and up 112% from 2019 (Raptors-Sixers: 782K). The Celtics-Warriors nightcap was actually higher at 1.73 million, up 23% from last year (Spurs-Lakers: 1.40M) and up 129% from ’19 (Heat-Blazers: 755K).
Lakers-Celtics averaged a 1.6 rating and 2.74 million viewers on the season premiere of ABC’s NBA Saturday Primetime, up 45% in ratings and 65% in viewership from the same weekend last year (2/1/20 Sixers-Celtics: 1.1, 1.66M), but down 15% and 6% respectively from the first Saturday Primetime game last season, which aired two weeks earlier (1/18/20 Lakers-Rockets: 1.9, 2.92M). Viewership peaked at 3.45 million. The Lakers and Celtics’ meeting on ABC last season — a Sunday afternoon game in mid-February — averaged a 2.3 and 3.59 million.
Since his Jan. 16 debut, the Nets on YES Network are outperforming the Knicks on MSG Network in viewership in the New York market, according to industry sources. In their eight games on YES, the Nets are leading the Knicks by an average of 10 percent. The numbers factor in MSG Network and its spillover channel MSG Plus. The Nets, since Harden’s first game, are averaging 122,000 viewers per game to the Knicks’ 111,000 viewers, based on Nielsen ratings, according to sources.
Nets Daily: Nets ratings on @YESNetwork still rising. Wednesday's game vs. Hawks averaged 103,000 viewers. Peaked at 182,000 viewers (10:00 – 10:15 pm ET). Sixth straight YES Nets telecast with an average of more than 100,000 viewers. That's more than double last year's viewership.
Viewership hit rock bottom last fall, when the 2020 NBA Finals saw a 51% decline from the year before, with Games 1, 2, and 3 ranking as the least-watched Finals games on record. Highlights of this NBA season’s viewership spike: TNT’s Opening Night doubleheader was the most-watched Opening Night since 2017, averaging 2.9 million viewers.
Overall, the league had its most-watched opening week since 2012 with an average of 3.4 million viewers, up 67% from last year’s opening week. TNT’s MLK Day tripleheader averaged 1.73 million viewers, up 32% from last January’s tripleheader.
Vincent Goodwill: Last night’s BKN-CLE game was the most-viewed game in the U.S. and fourth most-viewed game globally on League Pass this season. Viewers were up 115% and watch hours were up 227% vs. the per-game averages for the season.
Alex Schiffer: From @YESNetwork: YES’ telecast of last evening’s Nets-Cavs game averaged 159,000 Total Viewers in the New York DMA, the network’s most-viewed Nets telecast in six years (179,000 average Total Viewers for its December 8, 2014 game, also against the Cavs). @NetsOnYES
The NBA has reported viewership increases from last season on NBA League Pass (46%), minutes viewed on League Pass (18%) and engagement on the league’s social media platforms (201%). TNT’s Martin Luther King Day tripleheader (Suns-Grizzlies, Nets-Bucks, Warriors-Lakers) also netted an average of 1.73 million viewers, a 32% increase from the network’s MLK Day coverage last season. That increase can be partly attributed to the presence of the Warriors’ Stephen Curry and the Nets’ Kevin Durant, both of whom had significant injuries last season. As USA TODAY Sports and others reported last month, the NBA’s television ratings on opening week yielded a 67% percent increase compared to last season, and its Christmas Day games netted a 10% increase in viewership. The NBA started this season on Dec. 22 after starting last season on Oct. 22.
Overall, TNT’s MLK Day tripleheader, which also included the Phoenix Suns vs. Memphis Grizzlies, averaged 1.6 million viewers across TNT and TV Everywhere platforms, up 26% over last year’s coverage. TNT’s live NBA regular season game coverage is averaging 1.7 million viewers, up 21% vs. the same number of games last year (1.4 million viewers through 12 telecasts).
Brian Lewis: YES’ telecast of last evening’s Magic-#Nets game averaged 143,000 viewers in the New York DMA, nearly double #YES’ season-to-date average of 72,000 viewers. This, despite the fact that the telecast went up against #NFL playoff action and the Rangers-Islanders game.
Wednesday’s Nets-Knicks NBA regular season game averaged 1.18 million viewers on ESPN, up 27% from Nets-Sixers on the comparable January date last year (934K), but down 32% from Bucks-Rockets in 2019 (1.73M). The game aired in the hours after news broke of Brooklyn’s trade for James Harden. The Pelicans-Clippers nightcap chipped in 987,000 (-13%).
Tuesday’s Pelicans-Suns NBA regular season game, in which Phoenix led by as many as 40 points, averaged 1.15 million viewers on TNT — up 9% from the network’s final game of 2019 (12/26/19 Blazers-Jazz: 1.06M). Earlier in the night, the Bucks’ 47-point win over the Heat averaged 837,000 (-29%). Compared to TNT’s third night of coverage last season, which took place in October and faced Thursday Night Football, Bucks-Heat increased 27% and Pelicans-Suns 47% (vs. 10/31/19 Heat-Hawks: 658K and Nuggets-Pelicans: 784K).
NBA viewers watched 81.5 million hours of live games on ABC, ESPN and TNT in the opening week of the season, up 95% from opening week in 2019. In terms of total hours, this season's opening week was the most viewed since 2011, the league said Wednesday. That also was the last time the NBA season opened during the week of Christmas; it was on Dec. 25 that year and Dec. 22 this year.
The NBA season typically opens in October. The start of this season was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, whereas there was a labor dispute in 2011. Games shown on ESPN on Christmas Day -- New Orleans against Miami and the LA Clippers against Denver -- were up 10% in average viewers (2.83 million) over the games shown in comparable windows on Christmas last season.
And the Nets also — maybe for the first time in their history — have a bigger television audience through the season’s first three games. YES Network, which broadcasts the Nets, boldly tweeted out information the Nets are beating the Knicks in viewership. The Nets’ first two games were on national TV (TNT and ABC) with their third game on YES. Through three games, gauging the New York audience, Kevin Durant’s Nets are averaging 340,667 viewers compared to the Knicks’ 146,667 viewers. Each of the three Knicks’ games were on MSG Network. (They only have one game all season on a national network.)
The Nets’ first two games were on national TV (TNT and ABC) with their third game on YES. Through three games, gauging the New York audience, Kevin Durant’s Nets are averaging 340,667 viewers compared to the Knicks’ 146,667 viewers. Each of the three Knicks’ games were on MSG Network. (They only have one game all season on a national network.)
Nets Daily: Putting aside the national ratings, how are the Nets and Knicks doing in the New York market through the first two games? Nets are averaging 436,000 total viewers per game in the New York market; Knicks are averaging 157,500 total viewers. (Oh, the times, they are a-changin')
Wednesday’s Bucks-Celtics NBA regular season game averaged a Nielsen-estimated 2.00 million viewers on TNT, up 18% from Celtics/Sixers on the second night of last season (1.70M) and up 28% from 2018 (Pelicans-Rockets: 1.56M). Those games aired on ESPN. Later in the night, Mavericks-Suns averaged 1.22 million on ESPN — down 10% from last year (Nuggets-Blazers: 1.35M) but up 1% from the same matchup in 2018 (Mavericks-Suns: 1.21M). Through two nights, the NBA season is averaging 2.28 million viewers on TNT and ESPN — up 3% from last year (2.21M), up 5% from 2018 (2.16M), and the highest in three years (2017: 3.49M).
Adam Silver: Now, some people might suggest that the words Black Lives Matter are causing massive amounts of people to tune out the NBA. There’s absolutely no data to support that. And in fact, as I said, there’s no doubt there are some people—and whether or not they were truly our fans to begin with is unclear—who have become further engaged with the league because they believe in our players and they believe in the positions they’ve taken, even if they don’t agree with everything they say. They respect their right to speak out on issues that are important to them.
The NBA Draft was just the latest sporting event to take a hit in the ratings. Wednesday’s NBA Draft averaged 2.13 million viewers across ESPN and ESPNU, down 31% from both last year (3.09M) and 2018 (3.07M) and the smallest audience for the event since at least 2007. Figures do not include the 82,000 who watched coverage on NBA TV.
The first round of the draft averaged 2.65 million — ESPN’s top NBA audience in the month of November since 2018 — and ranked second for the night in adults 18-49 and 18-34 behind “The Masked Singer” on FOX. The steep decline and multi-year low for the NBA Draft is in keeping with the broader trend facing the sports media industry. The NBA Finals, World Series, Stanley Cup Final, final rounds of the Masters and U.S. Open — and more — have hit historic lows since the wave of cancellations and postponements in March.
If they are able to return to that status as soon as next season, how much do you think that’ll help the league from a bigger-picture perspective in terms of TV ratings and that sort of thing? “That’s hard to predict. As a league, we recognize that the restart was tough in some ways. We don’t read too much into the ratings from this past summer. We were in a different time of year, different competition. There was obviously enormous and intense interest in election coverage. The goal of the league is to have 30 teams that all, when well-managed, are in a position to compete for championships.
League officials have publicly downplayed concerns about the recent ratings decline, pointing to the N.B.A.’s mammoth social media following as a source of optimism about its broader appeal. Vocal critics — with little to no evidence — increasingly attribute the plunge to a leaguewide embrace of social justice causes, but the dip has had an impact even if there is no clear-cut explanation. Long-held fears among N.B.A. traditionalists that the viewing audience will inevitably shrink after July appear to have been validated.
Why 72 games? I can assure you it was not just some random number pulled out of the sky. Seventy-two is an oddly specific number as well, which makes one presume the NBA did a lot of work to arrive at that figure. From a TV perspective, 72 games are just enough to satisfy the regional sports network contracts that provide local TV revenue for each team (most specify either 65 or 70 games), but still short enough to get the season banged out between Christmas and the beginning of May.
The second reason for the shift in attitudes flows out of the first: If next season is going to be financially difficult too, better to do it sooner rather than later and get back on a traditional schedule for the next season. Just rip the bandaid off. The idea is to have the 2021-22 season be the “return to normal” in the sense of a regular timeline for the season and full buildings. One thing the NBA came away with from the bubble is that the league does not want to play into the fall and go up against the NFL and college football again. Ratings were way down for the NBA Finals. While there were a lot of factors in that — the nation focused on an intense presidential and national election, more competing sports, the coronavirus shifting people’s priorities — league officials came out of it wanting to get back to a more traditional October-to-June schedule with the draft in late June and free agency in July.
According to industry sources, it has become an agonizing issue for Silver after the NBA Finals ratings’ collapse. Silver has talked about less messaging on jerseys and the court next season. One source said: “It’s a balancing act for Adam. When you’re balancing, sometimes you fall.’’
The NBA Finals ended with another low rating, but nonetheless put up a stronger fight against Sunday Night Football than the previous week. Sunday’s clinching Game 6 of the NBA Finals (Lakers-Heat) averaged a 4.2 rating and 8.29 million viewers on ABC, marking the lowest rated and least-watched Finals clincher on record. Ratings fell 61% and viewership 56% from last year’s Game 6, a close game that took place in June and did not face NFL competition (Raptors-Warriors: 10.7, 18.76M).
While the coverage might make one believe that the NBA suffered a sharper ratings drop than any other league, the numbers tell a different story. The 2020 NBA Playoffs averaged 3.04 million viewers across ESPN, ABC, TNT and NBA TV (83 telecasts), down 37% from last year, when the postseason took place as scheduled in April, May and June (4.83M). The 37 percent decline is in line with the broader trend facing the sports industry since the wave of cancellations and postponements in March. The NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs declined an almost identical 38% across NBC’s TV and digital platforms (from 1.53M to 953K) and the MLB Division Series sank 40% on TBS, FS1 and MLB Network (from 3.04M to 1.82M).
The six-game Lakers-Heat NBA Finals averaged 7.48 million viewers, down 49% from last year and easily the least-watched Finals on record. The previous low was 9.29 million for Spurs-Cavaliers in 2007. [Related: NBA Finals ratings improve, but still low, at series end.]
Like the playoffs as a whole, the steep drop for the Finals is in line with the industry-wide trend. Even after losing half of its year-ago audience, the Finals held up better than the Stanley Cup Final (-61%) or the final round of golf’s U.S. Open (-56%), which were similarly shifted from June to late summer.
However, people flocking to cable news might be the biggest reason based on these numbers via AP. • Fox News averaged of 4.42 million last week–up 63%. • MSNBC averaged 2.75 million last week–up 38% • CNN averaged 2.59 million last week–up 172%. The takeaway is simple: Without an election year in 2021 and with (hopefully) the pandemic becoming a thing of the past, most sports will enjoy a viewership increase in 2021.
Yes, the NBA Finals are down 48 percent from last year, but there are a number of contributing factors. The ratings purge isn’t an isolated affair. A number of observers have suggested that players speaking out on racial inequality during news conferences and kneeling for the national anthem, and the social justice messages on the back of the jerseys during the NBA’s restart have negatively affected the league’s brand and ratings. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James has even been blamed for the drop in viewership because of his willingness to speak freely.
But the MLB playoffs (down 39 percent), the NFL (down 14 percent), the NHL playoffs (down 25 percent) and the Stanley Cup Finals (down 61 percent) are all experiencing ratings drops. These dips are seemingly overlooked because it doesn’t fit the narrative that a league predominantly composed of Black men raising concerns over the justice system and condemning systemic racism is bad for business.
According to Nielsen Media Research, the racial composition of the NBA’s audience for this year’s playoffs is the same as last year’s. The audience for the 2020 NBA Finals through the first four games is 45 percent white and 55 percent non-white; it was 46 percent white, 54 percent non-white in 2019. This suggests that the people claiming to be turning off their televisions because of the social justice messaging aren’t the ones tuning in regularly in the first place.
There are, however, numerous contributing factors as to why all major sports leagues are seeing a ratings drop. In unprecedented circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL were playing at the same time, giving fans a multitude of options. The NBA restart was played in the summer, which doesn’t allow for a true ratings comparison of prior years because the league typically concludes in June. And it’s an intense election year in which the president was hospitalized with the coronavirus, which dominated the news cycle.
Game 4 saw the audience rise to 7.54 million viewers, which was ahead of Game’s 3’s 5.94 million viewers. The Game 3 number set a new low since finals ratings were recorded in 1984, according to Sports Media Watch.
Perhaps sparked by the Heat’s upset in Game 3, Game 4 was the most-watched of the series, which the Lakers now lead 3-1. Game 5 is Friday. The first three games each set futility records. There were a total of 6.6 million viewers for Game 2, which broke the Game 1 record low of 7.4 million. ESPN/ABC did not respond to a request for comment.
According to sources, commissioner Adam Silver still is surprised at the low audience with LeBron James chasing his fourth title at age 35. Silver is aiming for next year’s NBA Finals to not compete in the crowded sports month of October.
In the latest TV ratings, ABC’s coverage of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night averaged 5.3 million total viewers and a 1.9 demo rating, up sharply from Game 3‘s fast nationals (4 mil/1.5) to mark the championship series’ best preliminary numbers since its Sept. 30 tipoff. NBC’s Weakest Link (4.7 mil/0.8) dropped from last week’s pre-debate premiere yet still led Tuesday’s non-NBA fare in both measures. Leading out of that, Ellen’s Game of Games returned to 3.5 mil/0.6, while Transplant (3.1 mil/0.4) dipped from its previous outing.
he result? This year’s NBA Finals are competing for eyeballs with the NFL, college football, and MLB playoffs. ABC’s Game 3 coverage went up against NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” with predictable results. “Going up head-to-head with the NFL and MLB postseason is a first — and the competition has had a negative effect on audience delivery,” Adgate said.
Storyline: TV Ratings
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