CHICAGO – As NBA teams jockey for playoff positioning, the league’s television networks have rebounded from some of their early-season ratings losses.
During NBA All-Star weekend, TNT saw net improvements in Friday’s Rising Stars game (1 percent and most-watched since 2015), Saturdays’ 3-point and slam-dunk contest (one percent and most-watched since 2017) as well as Sunday’s pre-game show (6.3 million, an 19 percent increase) and the All-Star game itself (7.3 million, an eight percent increase). ESPN also experienced a nine percent increase in viewership with Friday’s All-Star celebrity game.
Those numbers correlate with the NBA hosting more competitive events while honoring Kobe Bryant, who died three weeks ago along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others in a helicopter crash.
Although average viewership across ABC, ESPN and TNT have suffered a 13-percent decrease this season, the NBA experienced other relative improvements in recent months. Average viewership on ESPN and TNT increased by a combined six percent in December. Those viewers then increased by an average of 27 percent on ESPN, TNT and NBA TV in January.
After experiencing a 23-percent dip with its telecasts through late November, TNT has made enough net gains to lower that deficit to a 13-percent decrease compared with last season. While experiencing a 10-percent decline in viewership this season, ESPN has drawn more viewers among key demographics (men ages 18-to-34; men ages 18 to 49) than other cable programs over a 31-day period. The network also had net gains in its pre-game show, NBA Countdown (eight percent).
Those numbers have not entirely offset the NBA’s declining television rating stemminged from either cord-cutting, downgraded cable packages and extensive injuries to the league’s star players. But those numbers left the NBA feeling validated on downplaying the league’s early-season bumps.
“We may be affected by it a little bit more on properties because we have such a young fanbase,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a press conference during All-Star weekend. “But I am very confident we can work through it.”
The reason? The NBA has mostly attributed its season-long decrease in television ratings more on external circumstances.
Out of the 103 combined NBA games that ABC, ESPN and TNT aired this season, 51 of them featured at least one star player sidelined with an injury. The most notable examples had included New Orleans’ Zion Williamson, the Warriors’ Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the Clippers’ Paul George as well as Atlanta’s Trae Young.
Since then, the NBA has attracted more interest.
After missing the Pelicans’ first 44 games with a right knee injury, Williamson’s debut on Jan. 22 attracted 2.36 million viewers on ESPN, which tied for the network’s highest-rated non-Christmas Day games this season. Since then, the Pelicans’ four nationally televised games featuring Williamson attracted a 49 percent increase in average viewership compared to the other televised Pelicans’ games before his injury.
Because of those injuries, both ESPN and TNT flexed out 23 games for more compelling matchups. Should Curry return sometime in March as expected, the NBA will likely add more Warriors games on its national TV schedule.
“There are always going to be injuries in the league and there are always going to be injuries, unfortunately, to star players,” Silver said. “But I view them as short-term issues and not structural issues. There are structural issues where our games are being delivered. It is something we’re working through now.”
What are the structural issues? The challenges go beyond the NBA struggling to fight for viewership amid the NFL’s popularity and Major League Baseball’s playoff race.
The NBA is aware that about 1/3 of its audience is under 35 as compared to 1/5 of the audience for other television programs. Therefore, the rate of declining television consumption has hurt the NBA more than three times than other leagues and shows. But the NBA also believes it will eventually benefit long-term because of its popularity among young fans.
The NBA has become encouraged with the growth in League Pass with subscriptions (11 percent increase) and unique viewership (25 percent increase). Fans have shown increased interest in streaming services on TNT (32 percent increase) and ESPN (41 percent increase).
“The good news for the league is when we look at all other data points into what we see in social media and what we see in distribution with highlights and the general chatter around our games, we’ve never been more popular,” Silver said. “But we haven’t found a way to connect those young fans to our broadcast through whatever platform they are going to be delivered.”
Despite injuries to Curry, Thompson, Williamson and Toronto’s Pascal Siakam, the NBA’s five-game Christmas Day slate averaged 5.3 million viewers, a 4 percent increase compared to 2017 and a 16 percent increase compared to 2016. In their first game since Bryant’s passing, the Lakers-Trail Blazers game on Jan. 31 became ESPN’s second-most watched regular-season game in the network’s history (an average of 4.41 million viewers).
Because the NBA attracts more interest following the NFL season and when regular-season games become more consequential, ESPN and TNT backloaded their schedule with marquee teams. Those include the Lakers (a combined 11 more games), the Clippers (a combined seven more), the New Orleans Pelicans (four more ESPN games) and the Houston Rockets (five more TNT games). Among those games includes the Lakers-Clippers game that was postponed following Bryant’s death.
Perhaps after airing all of those games, the NBA will experience recoup more of its losses.
Said Silver: “I think it’s a very solvable problem.”
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