Disney Christmas NBA Ratings Get Scrooged by Blowouts

Anthony Crupi
·3 min read

A series of blowouts conspired to put the humbug on Disney’s Christmas NBA marathon, leaving ABC and ESPN with lumps of coal in their ratings stockings.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, Friday’s holiday quintet averaged 4.32 million viewers and a 2.0 household rating, down 16% and 26%, respectively, compared to the year-ago 5.16 million/2.7. The third game posted the worst retention rate of the bunch, as the Nets’ 28-point laugher against the Celtics on ABC was down 35% compared to the 5 p.m. ET Rockets-Warriors showdown in 2019.

While the Christmas deliveries may not have lived up to earlier expectations, much of the decline can be attributed to a relative lack of on-court intrigue. Just prior to Brooklyn’s Krampus-style handling of Boston, the Bucks Grinch-ed it up for the visiting Warriors, beating them by 39 points. Viewership for that broadcast, which also aired on ABC, was down 13% versus last year’s Bucks-Sixers outing.

The same applied for the primetime ABC game, which was simulcast on ESPN. LeBron James and the defending champion Lakers beat the Mavs by 23 points, and in so doing averaged 6.95 million viewers, down 21% from the 8.76 million the two networks averaged with last year’s collaborative effort (Clippers-Lakers). Friday’s game marked King James’ lowest-rated Yuletide appearance since 2008, when TNT aired its very first holiday telecast—a defensive struggle between the 4-23 Wizards and the 25-4 Cavaliers—to some 2.14 million viewers.

While the broadcast ratings were down quite a bit, the cable network managed to reverse the trend with its pair of bookend telecasts. Leading off the day at noon ET, ESPN’s presentation of New Orleans at Miami averaged 3.5 million viewers, up 4% year-over-year, while the Clippers-Nuggets nightcap improved 18%.

If the Christmas Day slate didn’t go according to plan, the usual caveats about temporal dislocation and TV usage still apply. With only 75 days having elapsed since the Lakers celebrated their championship down in the Orlando bubble, the usual demand for the NBA’s holiday smörgåsbord may have been somewhat dulled by relative satiety.

On top of the too-much, too-soon element, ABC has had to contend with TV’s ongoing ratings malaise. While broadcast usage has improved somewhat when compared to the opening month of the 2020-21 TV season, the overall numbers remain cramped. Through the first 95 days of the campaign, live-plus-same-day deliveries for the Big Four networks are down 19% compared to the analogous period in 2019; with an average draw of 17.3 million viewers, the networks are facing a loss of nearly 4 million viewers per night.

While the late start makes a hash of any direct comparisons to last season, which tipped off during the traditional October window, the first four days of in-game NBA action averaged 3.4 million viewers across TNT and the Disney nets, up from 2.0 million during the opening week of the 2019-20 season. Again, it’s like comparing apples to Fiona Apple, but there’s something to be said for a strong start on the heels of a ratings-challenged postseason.

The networks will know exactly how much demand there is for the NBA once it starts totaling up the season’s ad receipts. The four-month coronavirus shutdown and the concomitant devastation of the greater consumer economy contributed to a $1.5 billion revenue shortfall for the league, while its network partners had a relatively better time of it. TNT and the Disney networks last season saw overall NBA ad revenue slump 12% to just under $1 billion, a rate consistent with the national TV market’s overall shrinkage of 11%.

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