NBA Rumor: TV Ratings

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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.

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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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.)

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 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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

Nobody anticipated good ratings for a fanless, football season NBA Finals, but this year’s series is thus far underperforming the lowest expectations. Sunday’s Lakers-Heat NBA Finals Game 3 averaged a 3.1 rating and 5.94 million viewers, marking the lowest rated and least-watched NBA Finals game on record. The previous low was set two nights earlier by Game 2, which averaged a 3.6 and 6.61 million. The low before that was set by last Wednesday’s Game 1, which as previously reported drew a 4.1 and 7.41 million.

Prior to this year, the record-lows were a 5.2 and 8.06 million for Nets-Spurs Game 2 in 2003. [Related: NBA Finals ratings history] Miami’s Game 3 win marked the first NBA Finals game to ever air on an NFL Sunday. It was dominated by NBC’s Sunday Night Football (Eagles-49ers), which won the head-to-head by 171% in ratings (8.4 to 3.1) and 180% in viewership (15.08 to 5.94M). In the key young adult demographics, SNF won by 105% in adults 18-49 (4.5 to 2.2) and a comparably modest 65% in adults 18-34 (3.4 to 2.0).

Let’s start with the headline: All together, East and West, these were two of the least-watched conference finals series ever, despite featuring the league’s most famous player (LeBron James) on the league’s most famous franchise (the Lakers). It happened despite Nielsen using “Out of Home” viewership for the first time ever at the start of September, which likely goosed NBA numbers between seven and 12 percent. Note: Don’t expect sports leagues to tell you about OOH viewership ratings inflation when they all boast about rising ratings next season.

The declines are steep and the lows historic, but all is not lost as the NBA enters the final chapter of its protracted season. The NBA conference finals averaged approximately 4.18 million viewers across ESPN and TNT, down 35% from last year (6.42M) and the smallest audience for the round since at least 2007. The 11 games played this year rank among the 14 least-watched conference final games since 2007, joining Raptors-Bucks Game 2 last year (4.39M) and Games 1 and 2 of Spurs-Grizzlies in 2013 (4.85 and 4.62M).

Heat-Celtics Game 5 the previous night averaged a 2.35 and 4.37 million on ESPN, down 38% and 37% respectively from last year (Raptors-Bucks: 3.8, 6.23M), but still the night’s top television program on any network in viewership and the key adult demographics. As one would expect, the games were the two least-watched conference final Game 5s since 2007 (Jazz-Spurs: 3.97M). Still, they helped the NBA top the charts in adults 18-49 for the 25th and 26th time in 35 nights this postseason. The number of nightly wins rises to 30 among men 18-49.

Even a buzzer-beating Laker win could not keep NBA ratings afloat opposite Sunday Night Football. Airing directly opposite NBC’s Sunday Night Football, Game 2 of the NBA Western Conference Finals (Nuggets-Lakers) averaged a 1.75 rating and 3.17 million viewers on TNT — marking the league’s smallest conference final audience since Pistons-Nets Game 4 on ESPN in 2003 (2.72M). No other conference final game since at least 2001 has averaged fewer viewers.
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April 13, 2021 | 5:23 am EDT Update
“This is frustrating,” said Haliburton, whose Kings had fallen to lowly Detroit at home the night before. “I’ve never lost like this in my life, so it’s obviously different. But I think that’s the great part about being a lottery pick is (that) now I’m expected to come into a franchise and help change the culture and help change things for the better. It’s just a part of the journey that’s not fun but is just a part of it. “I have film up right now (in his room) that I’m watching from last night. It’s been hard, but it’s kind of the beauty in the struggle, right? It’s a lot of different emotions, and it’s learning how to deal with it and hopefully make sure it doesn’t become something that’s consistent.”
Well with that in mind — and I’m not trying to be dramatic, click-baity guy — but does it piss you off that so many teams passed? Are you going to be one of those players where when you play each of these teams there’s a little extra fuel because of the way that went down? Hell yeah, for sure. I think the great players internally have that, you know what I’m saying? And I think it’s just a part of them forever, right? That’s just who they are. They’re not going to be super vocal about it, by any means, but just internally that extra motivation, I think the great ones always find that. So I think it definitely is in my head all the time, and there has definitely been some dumb shit said throughout the process where I’m like, ‘Ok, let’s not forget that you said that.’ …There have been people who said crazy things, like they don’t really see it in me or they don’t see the fit. I’m a basketball player, so I feel like if you put me anywhere I’m going to go out there and play to my abilities. Of course I have that confidence in myself. But at the end of the day, I understand. Everybody’s got to make their own decisions, and live with that. And then my goal is just to make people in 20 years be like, ‘Man, I fucked that up,’ you know?