NBA’s Biggest Stars Flicker Out as Media Rights Renewals Loom

Whether it’s brought on by orbital decay or gravitational collapse, the demise of the NBA’s binary star system is as inevitable, and as close-at-hand, as the next sunset. LeBron James and Steph Curry have revolved around each other and the common mass of their unworldly talents for the better part of the last 10 years, and in that span they’ve served as the league’s biggest draws and greatest ambassadors. When the rivalry ends, as all things must, the NBA will be a much colder, darker place.

Since first becoming gravitationally bound to one another during the 2015 NBA Finals, James and Curry have played a starring role in some of basketball’s most-watched moments. Punctuated by The Block, Game 7 of the 2016 Finals between the Cavs and Warriors averaged a staggering 31 million viewers, marking an 18-year high and giving ABC bragging rights to the third most-watched NBA broadcast in the modern Nielsen era. The following year’s rematch was the highest-rated Finals since Michael Jordan closed out his second three-peat 19 years earlier.

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Age has not dimmed James’ and Curry’s collective star power. In dispatching the Warriors 4-2 in the second round of this year’s playoffs, LeBron’s Lakers helped ABC, ESPN and TNT average just shy of 7.8 million viewers per game, good for the most-watched conference semifinals in 27 years. James’ and Curry’s prints were all over the Nielsen charts, as their series accounted for four of the 10 biggest draws of the postseason. Through 76 games, Los Angeles and Golden State have factored into nine of the NBA’s 10 top playoff telecasts, with the April 30 Warriors-Kings clincher beating all comers. In drawing 9.84 million viewers, ABC put up the biggest numbers for a first-round series since 1999.

If the ratings train now seems to have been derailed by Denver’s sweep of L.A.—LeBron’s exit and an unlikely run by the eighth-seeded Miami Heat took the prospect of a 13th Celtics-Lakers title tilt off the table—the gains made in the first two rounds should keep the NBA’s media partners in the black. Through Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, playoff deliveries are up 12% versus the year-ago period, this despite the fact that primetime TV usage has fallen by nearly 10% during the same 12-month span.

However things shake out during the Finals, the shadow of what might have been (and what might happen next) is going to hang over the NBA throughout the summer. In the wake of the Lakers’ ouster on Monday, LeBron injected a bit of ambiguity into his postgame presser. “I got a lot to think about, to be honest,” he told reporters shortly after scoring 40 points on a bum foot. “Just for me personally, going forward with the game of basketball, I’ve got a lot to think about it.”

As much as those two sentences are the soundtrack to Adam Silver’s worst nightmares, LeBron has about 97.1 million reasons to suit up for his 21st NBA campaign. With one guaranteed $46.7 million season left on his contract, and an option for 2024-25 that would kick in another $50.4 million to his retirement fund, that’s a whole lot of money to leave on the table, even for the world’s sixth-wealthiest athlete. Beyond mere pecuniary considerations, there’s the not-inconsiderable Bronny factor; for some time now, the four-time champ has been emphatic in expressing his desire to play his last year of pro ball alongside his son. (Bronny James begins his freshman year at USC this fall.)

But even if LeBron’s hint about packing it in is merely the first salvo in a summer-long negotiation—i.e., ship me to the Bay Area or New York or bolster my supporting cast with a Kyrie Irving-grade free agent—the man’s turning 39 in December. Curry’s getting up there as well, having blown out 35 candles on his most recent birthday cake. Slather the cucumber masks and quaff all the anti-aging elixirs you can stomach, but nothing halts Time’s grim forward march. Like it or not, the two players most responsible for scaring up the NBA’s supersized TV audiences are nearing the end of their respective runs, and given history’s knack for repetition (see: Jordan, Michael), a post-peak ratings plunge is all but inevitable.

As much as the game will miss the James-Curry rivalry, a successor to one or both will eventually establish himself in the firmament of the NBA’s star system. As sure as the Bird-Magic era was supplanted by Jordan’s uncanny run—and the GOAT in his turn would give way to Kobe and Shaq’s frenemies dynamic—some otherworldly presence will come along to succeed LeBron and Steph. If Victor Wembanyama (zut alors!) can live up to even a fraction of the hype, hoops fans will be in for a treat. Maybe Zion Williamson, who’s played all of 114 games in his three seasons in the league, manages to shake the injury bug and slip the funereal comparisons to Greg Oden. Neither player has the gravitational pull of LeBron James, but we’re talking about a guy who made his national television debut as a 17-year-old high school senior.

If the timing’s less than fortuitous (the NBA’s exclusive negotiating window with Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery flies open on March 9, 2024), no serious observer believes that the encroaching dematerialization of the league’s two most important players will have a material impact on the configuration of the next rights package.

The NBA is the nation’s No. 2 sports property, trailing only the implacable juggernaut that is the NFL in the ratings column. And while navigating the [d]evolving media landscape is about as fraught with uncertainty/peril as trying to change a tire on a speeding car, the NBA arenas are drawing more fans than ever before. (With capacity at 97%, overall on-site attendance in 2022-23 was 22.2 million, breaking the previous high set five years ago.)

The NBA’s desire to deal in a third media partner (place your bets on an exclusive streaming package with the likes of Amazon, Apple, or NBCUniversal’s Peacock) will reduce the legacy rights-holders’ volume of live games, thereby lessening the impact of the inevitable 75%-100% fee hike. Something’s got to give. Given the bleeding out of bundled pay-TV subs—per earnings figures, the traditional cable/satellite/telco-TV base fell another 11% in the first quarter, to 58.6 million households, or 47% of all U.S. TV homes—the league and the networks are trying to plan for a future that’s increasingly looking like a polar bear stranded on an ice floe.

As the NBA looks to insulate itself from the perils of cord-cutting, it will work to secure more time on the schedules of traditional broadcasters such as ABC (and, perhaps, NBC), while grabbing as much of that disruptor dough as it can. A LeBron James comes along maybe once every quarter-century, but this next round of deals will be far less concerned with how the stars align on the court than with the means by which fans will access the NBA in the very near future. We’ll miss the old guys when they’re gone, but their departure won’t cause the country’s obsession with basketball to go supernova.

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