NBA Rumor: TV Ratings

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On paper, ABC’s 5 p.m. ET Warriors-Suns showcase looks awfully sweet, as it features a meeting between point guards extraordinaire Steph Curry and Chris Paul. Golden State will be in the midst of a bid to return to the postseason after a two-year layoff, during which Klay Thompson was benched with various leg ailments. The Suns, meanwhile, are still smarting from their 4-2 loss to the Bucks in the NBA Finals; all things being equal, this is the sort of pairing that should draw as many as 9 million viewers. Unfortunately for ABC, the Golden State-Phoenix broadcast airs directly opposite Fox’s coverage of a Packers-Browns game in which Aaron Rodgers will suit up against Baker Mayfield. The grizzled-vet-versus-cocky-upstart trope generally makes for good TV, and seeing as how Green Bay has long been one of the NFL’s top draws, Fox is likely to pull a Grinch on ABC.
1 month ago via ESPN

Nets vs. Lakers to highlight Christmas Day schedule

A showdown between the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers will highlight the NBA’s Christmas Day schedule, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. In addition to the star-studded, cross-coast clash, the Atlanta Hawks will travel to take on the New York Knicks. That game will be a rematch of a first-round playoff series that saw Trae Young become a Madison Square Garden villain while the Hawks eliminated the Knicks in five games.

Gaining broadcast network exposure for the first time, the NBA Draft managed a modest bump over last year’s low despite competition from the Summer Olympics. Airing opposite the Summer Olympics, Thursday’s NBA Draft averaged 2.26 million viewers across ESPN and ABC — up 6% from last year, when the event took place in November (2.13M), but down 27% from 2019, when Zion Williamson went #1 overall and the event took place in June (3.09M). Coverage aired on ESPN and ESPNU in those years.

While the average number of comments made per day in 2021 was the highest on record, the peaks (which almost always occur during the postseason) were actually the lowest since 2016. That’s surprising because r/nba has more than quadrupled its subscriber base since then. What I like about this approach is that it’s capturing NBA interest (or lack thereof) from a younger, more technologically-savvy fanbase. I think the criticism most people have with using television ratings to measure fan interest is that younger fans aren’t watching games on TV — they’re streaming it or just following it closely on social media. This analysis shows that even among the fans least likely to be captured by traditional television ratings, interest in the biggest NBA games appears to be down.

The NBA Finals, taking place in July for the first time, averaged 9.9 million viewers, representing the fourth-lowest figure this century, as noted Monday by my Axios counterpart Kendall Baker. The only three Finals to pull in smaller audiences were last season’s Finals from the Walt Disney World bubble (Lakers vs. Heat) that were staged much later than usual in October, 2007 (Spurs vs. Cavaliers) and 2003 (Spurs vs. Nets). The league has long maintained that such audience measures are incomplete, since they roughly account for only 10% of international markets and do not include figures from social media platforms or its League Pass streaming service.

Giannis Antetekounmpo’s 50-point effort, which snapped the Milwaukee Bucks’ 50-year drought, posted a 50 percent increase in viewership over last year. Tuesday’s Suns-Bucks NBA Finals Game 6 averaged a 6.6 rating and 12.52 million viewers on ABC, up 57% in ratings and 50% in viewership from Lakers-Heat in the “bubble” last October, which aired opposite Sunday Night Football (4.2, 8.37M), but down 38% and 33% respectively from Raptors-Warriors in June 2019 (10.7, 18.76M).

According to Nielsen, the NBA and ABC on Wednesday, the six-game series between the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns averaged 9.91 million viewers, a 32% increase over last year’s series between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat, which also went six games. However, the average makes it the fourth-lowest since 1997. The Lakers-Heat series — which was played in October in the bubble in Orlando, Florida, after the coronavirus pandemic pushed the season back five months — averaged only 7.45 million.

After a series (and post-hiatus) high in Game 4, a Saturday night Game 5 of the NBA Finals slipped back under the ten million mark. Saturday’s Bucks-Suns NBA Finals Game 5 averaged a 4.8 rating and 9.62 million viewers on ABC, flat in ratings and up a modest 7% viewership from Heat-Lakers last October, a potential title-clincher and the most-watched game in the “bubble” (4.8, 8.96M), and down a sharp 55% and 48% respectively from Warriors-Raptors in June 2019, another potential clincher in which Kevin Durant returned from injury only to tear his Achilles (10.6, 18.60M).

If 20 million viewers for the sixth broadcast of Bucks-Suns is likely out of reach—the audience would have to more than double (+122%) in size between Game 3 and Game 6, which is something that has happened exactly never—that figure is well within reach if a seventh game is required. That sort of turnout will not only keep ABC from being buried under a pile of make-goods, but it would also go a long way toward drowning out a lot of the chatter about the NBA’s waning popularity.

Back in the States, where soccer is still not exactly what anyone would call a matter of life and death, the TV audience was anything but insignificant. Not only did the Italy-England match deliver more viewers than each game of NBC Sports’ coverage of the Stanley Cup Final, but it also handily out-delivered nearly every game of the 2020-21 NBA season. Per Nielsen, only the Christmas Day Mavs-Lakers broadcast, two playoff outings and the three NBA Finals games have put up bigger numbers than Sunday’s overseas soccer showdown. For the sake of context, the two conference semifinals telecasts (Bucks-Nets, Hawks-Sixers) were both Game 7s.

A Western Conference Finals few would have expected at the start of the season posted a solid rebound over last year’s “bubble.” The six-game Suns-Clippers NBA Western Conference Finals averaged 5.38 million viewers across ESPN and ABC, up 19% from last fall’s Lakers-Nuggets series in the “bubble” on TNT, but down 29% from Warriors-Blazers on ESPN in 2019. Viewership increased a third from ESPN’s conference final in the “bubble,” Heat-Celtics.

Neither the ratings disaster of the “bubble” nor a return to normal, a pair of unexpected, non-traditional NBA conference finals continues to put up respectable numbers. Monday’s Clippers-Suns NBA Western Conference Finals Game 5 averaged 5.74 million viewers on ESPN, up 20% from last year’s clinching Nuggets-Lakers Game 5 in the “bubble” on TNT, which aired on a college football Saturday (4.79M) and the most-watched game of the conference finals thus far. For the postseason, the Clippers’ win ranks third behind a pair of semifinal Game 7s (Bucks-Nets: 6.91M; Hawks-Sixers: 6.16M) and ahead Warriors-Lakers in the Play-in Tournament (5.62M).

“If there was any question whether last year’s decline was primarily due to the bubble, the fan-less environment, the months-long delay, if there was any question as to whether or not that was true, it’s been answered by the fact that the ratings for a postseason where Steph Curry didn’t make it to the playoffs and LeBron didn’t make it out of the first round are up dramatically from last year, just by default,” Sports Media Watch’s Jon Lewis, an expert on the subject, told Yahoo Sports. “It’s obvious that 99% of why the ratings were so bad was because of the circumstances. Now, were there also people who tuned out because of seeing ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the court? Maybe, but I can tell you it’s painfully obvious that last year’s results were primarily because of being in the circumstances that the league found itself late last summer.”

That is why you have seen sourced reporting that anticipates a massive increase when the NBA’s current media rights deal expires in 2025, like the one from CNBC’s Jabari Young in March that set expectations at $75 billion — more than triple the existing package — even amid another regular-season ratings decline. “The value is always rising. You have to think about what that means. What the ratings decline means isn’t, ‘Oh, my goodness, they’re all going to go broke.’ That’s absurd,” added Lewis. “What the ratings decline means is you’re going to have to make some sacrifices to get as much money as you want to get. Those sacrifices aren’t going to be paying players less. They’re probably going to have to put some games on Peacock or ESPN+ or one of these platforms that networks are willing to overpay to get programming for.”

Crupi discusses the first round of the NBA playoffs averaging 3.06 million viewers, up 46 percent over 2020 and up 3 percent versus 2019; what the viewership numbers mean; why the second round of the NBA playoffs will be a significant viewership challenge for the NBA; the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs averaging a total audience of 642,000 viewers across NBC, NBCSN, USA, CNBC and digital outlets; what those numbers mean; what the best viewership possibilities for the NHL, and more.

In the NBA’s first second round since 1994 sans LeBron James, Stephen Curry or Shaquille O’Neal, the streaking Suns may have an argument as the league’s best draw left. Sunday’s Suns-Nuggets NBA second round Game 4 averaged a 2.25 rating and 4.22 million viewers on TNT, marking the largest audience of the second round thus far (through Monday). Ratings and viewership fell 22% from the comparable window in the “bubble” last year, but that was a Laker game on ABC (2.9, 5.43M). Compared to 2019 (Nuggets-Blazers), ratings fell 9% (from 2.5) but viewership increased 4% (from 4.06M).

Shifting to the highest-profile series of the first round, last Thursday’s Suns-Lakers Game 6 averaged 4.5 million viewers on TNT — the network’s largest opening round audience since 2018 (Cavaliers-Pacers Game 4: 6.07M). The Suns’ Game 5 rout last Tuesday averaged 3.5 million, up 44% from last year in the “bubble” (Mavericks-Clippers: 2.43M) and up 12% from Thunder-Blazers in 2019, a game that ended on a series-clinching three-pointer by Damian Lillard (3.11M).

NBA playoff viewership continues to surge over last year’s ratings disaster in the “bubble.” Last Sunday’s Suns-Lakers Game 4 averaged 5.38 million viewers on ABC, up 63% from last year’s comparable game in the “bubble” (Clippers-Mavericks: 3.31M) but down 15% from 2019 (Warriors-Clippers: 6.29M). The Suns’ win delivered the fourth-largest NBA audience of the current season, behind Mavericks-Lakers on Christmas (7.01M), the All-Star Game (5.94M) and Warriors-Lakers in the Play-in Tournament (5.62M).

Later Sunday, Nets-Celtics Game 4 averaged 3.47 million on TNT — up 139% from Raptors-Nets in the “bubble” (1.45M) and up 29% from Raptors-Magic in 2019 (2.69M). The Clippers-Mavericks nightcap drew 3.13 million, up 67% from the “bubble” (Nuggets-Jazz: 1.87M) and down 16% from 2019 (Blazers-Thunder: 3.74M). On Saturday, Jazz-Grizzlies Game 3 drew 2.89 million on ESPN — down 10% from 2019 (Rockets-Jazz: 3.19M). Sixers-Wizards led in with 2.24 million, down 42% from Lakers-Blazers in the “bubble,” which aired on ABC (3.86M), and down 10% from 2019 (Bucks-Pistons: 2.48M).

Figures for Thursday’s Game 3 telecasts were not immediately available. Lakers-Suns was the most-watched Game 2 with 4.02 million on TNT Tuesday night, up 17% from the comparable night in the “bubble” (Blazers-Lakers Game 1: 3.45M) and up 55% from 2019 (Thunder-Blazers Game 2: 2.59M). Grizzlies-Jazz ranked second among Game 2s with 2.76 million on TNT Wednesday, up 21% from the “bubble” (Mavericks-Clippers: 2.28M) and up 7% from 2019 (Jazz-Rockets: 2.58M).

You might ask, “What about LeBron?” Yes, he’s the NBA’s biggest remaining draw in this postseason, and when he goes against Steph, it’s a box-office bounty. You could even argue that he’s tied with Curry on a national level. I don’t think that’s the case, but it’s close enough that the argument can be made. On the local level, though? LeBron’s Lakers are nowhere near as watched in the Los Angeles market as the Warriors are in the Bay Area. The SBJ article shows us that the Warriors led all teams in local TV ratings in 2020-2021. Specifically, the Dubs’ 5.96 rating is way ahead of all others — save for the Jazz (5.90), a traditionally rabid one-team market.

The Lakers, who once ran Los Angeles before the Dodgers became one of baseball’s most locally popular teams, claimed only a 1.94 rating on their regional sports network (RSN). The Lakers averaged 96,350 households in the market in 2020-2021, while the Dodgers averaged 233,939 households last season. While you might chalk up that significantly lesser number to James missing 27 games, last season’s Lakers rating of 3.14 is still significantly lower than the recent Warriors mark. That aforementioned 2019-20 season, which was far more watched overall than the pandemic 2020-2021 season, featured a dominant Lakers squad that was charging towards contention for the first time in a decade. Still, its local rating was 89.9 percent lower than what the Warriors garnered this season.

Two big pieces of NBA viewership news happened over the last week, one more positive for the NBA than the other. We’ll start with the bad, in reference to the SBJ findings, and end on the good. This SBJ paragraph offers a good summation of the 2020-2021 RSN ratings picture overall: “The local numbers show some signs of concern, as they have posted decreases for four of the past five seasons, according to Broughton’s research. Numbers are also down three straight seasons and down 30 percent since the 2015-16 season.” Of the 28 NBA teams tracked in 2020-21, 15 declined by double digits. That’s not a majority of teams declining. That’s a majority declining by 10 percent or more. Caveats abound when we discuss the pandemic season, but the issue, as researcher Broughton puts it, is the trend that predates it. As he told me over the phone, “When you see that almost a third of the league see two straight years of significant declines, something’s up.”

The better news for the NBA is that the 2021 opening week is comparable with opening weekend of 2019, edging its average by 5,000 viewers, according to Sports Media Watch. Now, I could get into an arcane explanation of out-of-home counting and why that actually means fewer people watched in 2021 than in 2019. I could also point out that the 2019 opening weekend was totally sideswiped by Tiger Woods winning the Masters, a far bigger national happening than Phil Mickelson winning the PGA last weekend. I could add this context, but it’s sort of besides the point. The NBA’s first order of business was to stop the uncontrolled dive — and on this front, they did it.

Playoff TV ratings get better

The opening weekend of the NBA Playoffs averaged 2.89 million viewers across ESPN, ABC and TNT, up 49% from the first eight games of last year’s postseason, which aired on a Monday and Tuesday in August, and up slightly from the last traditional postseason in 2019 (2.84M). The average is identical to the six Play-in Tournament games that preceded the playoffs. Sunday’s Lakers-Suns Game 1 was the top draw of the weekend, averaging a 2.4 rating and 4.43 million viewers on ABC — topping every first round game in the “bubble” last August. Compared to the last traditional postseason in 2019, ratings slipped 2% but viewership increased 14% from Thunder-Blazers in the same Sunday afternoon window (2.6, 3.90M).

On the TV front, the New York Knicks delivered a big number for ESPN in Sunday’s win over the Clippers, reaping a 1,587,000 cable audience per Showbuzz, the biggest NBA viewership of that week. I say the Knicks delivered it because I’ve seen little evidence this season that the Clippers really move the needle. The impressive number is likely more of an indication that Thibodeau-mania is hitting our nation’s largest city, as the sport’s biggest and most easily excited fanbase rises to attention. That’s great news for the NBA, as the Knicks get set to play in the postseason.

Sunday’s Knicks-Clippers NBA regular season game averaged a 0.8 rating and 1.59 million viewers on ESPN, marking the league’s largest cable audience since Warriors-Lakers on the same network February 28 (1.65M). Heat-Celtics pulled a 0.6 an 1.10 million earlier in the day. In other action, Lakers-Blazers drew a 0.7 and 1.17 million on ESPN last Friday, preceded by Celtics-Bulls at a 0.6 and 896,000. Lakers-Clippers last Thursday drew a 0.8 and 1.31 million on TNT, with Nets-Mavericks leading in at a 0.7 and 1.12 million.

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.

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.

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).

NBA viewership dropped again this season on ABC

Eventually, it will be official: The NBA again lost viewership on its ABC games, down from last season’s all-time low of a 2.95 million average in 12 games. The current average for those premium network TV games in 2020-2021 is 2.83 million, per Showbuzz, with three ABC games to go. Based on how this average drops as the season moves along (it starts off highest after the Christmas games bonanza), we can safely project that the ABC games will finish at a mark that’s lower than last season, but not precipitously so.

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.

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.
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