NBA Rumor: TV Ratings

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Wednesday’s Nuggets-Suns NBA second round Game 2 averaged 3.53 million viewers on TNT, per John Ourand of Sports Business Journal — up 1% from Blazers-Nuggets on the comparable night two years ago (3.51M). Viewership actually declined 18% from the comparable game in the “bubble,” with the caveat that last year’s game was a first round Game 7 (Thunder-Rockets: 4.29M).

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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.

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.)
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June 12, 2021 | 12:41 am EDT Update

Cavs eyeing Alex Caruso, TJ McConnell?

Any potential free agency list should start with Indiana’s T.J. McConnell and Los Angeles pest Alex Caruso. Both are Cavs targets. Both fit really well. Some prefer Caruso. He’s younger, bigger, stronger and can guard multiple spots. Others like McConnell more. Even though he doesn’t shoot many 3s, he’s more polished, capable of filling in as starter, puts pressure on the rim and was the league’s total steals leader.
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The Cavs might also be looking for another center. Isaiah Hartenstein, who arrived in the JaVale McGee deal with Denver, has a player option. Sources expect him to exercise that and become a free agent. Hartenstein, who made the minimum this past season, likes it in Cleveland. But he boosted his value over the final few months and opting in would make him underpaid at $1.7 million. Hartenstein’s preference, according to sources, is to renegotiate a more lucrative long-term deal, staying with the Cavs as Allen’s backup.