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NBA Playoff Ratings Down 12% as Casual Fans Pine for LeBron, Curry

In a postseason marked by historically tough comps, the NBA can use all the Game 7s it can get its hands on as it heads into the final three series of the 2023-24 campaign.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 98-90 win over the defending champion Denver Nuggets averaged a season-high 8.41 million viewers on TNT and truTV, marking a record turnout for a non-Conference Finals telecast on TNT Sports. As is the case with all sports-TV deliveries since Nielsen began blending out-of-home audience data in with its national ratings sample in fall 2020, Sunday’s numbers are juiced; TNT’s previous high of 8.38 million viewers (Magic-Celtics, 2009) was not the beneficiary of an OOH boost.

Leading into Sunday night’s deciding game in Denver, Game 7 of the Pacers-Knicks scrap averaged 6.45 million viewers opposite the final round of the PGA Championship on CBS (4.96 million). Aside from the golf competition, ABC’s ratings were dinged by a relative lack of suspense, as Indiana’s 130-109 victory over New York was never in doubt.

Through the first two rounds of action, the NBA playoffs are averaging 4.03 million viewers across ESPN, ABC, TNT and truTV, which marks a 12% decline compared to last year’s 4.58 million. The year-ago deliveries benefited from Game 7 of the Kings-Warriors opener, which marked the most-watched first-round broadcast since 1999 (Warriors-Kings Game 7, 9.84 million viewers), and a subsequent six-game LeBron vs. Curry set that earned bragging rights as the biggest conference semifinals draw in 27 years. Also worth noting: Since the playoffs tipped off on April 20, overall TV usage is down 7% year-over-year.

Compared to this stage of the 2022 playoffs, the deliveries are up a twinge (+1%); in fact, the current numbers mark the second-highest TV turnout in the last decade.”

While Disney undoubtedly will miss the Knicks as the Pacers head into their Eastern Conference Finals matchup with the Celtics—with a total reach of 7.6 million TV households, New York accounts for 6.1% of the national base—their seven-game stand against Indiana was only the second most-watched series thus far. Pacers-Knicks averaged 5.08 million viewers per game, trailing Minnesota-Denver (5.5 million).

Of the remaining markets in play, No. 5 Dallas-Ft. Worth is the largest with a reach of 3.13 million TV homes, followed by No. 8 Boston (2.61 million), No. 15 Minneapolis (1.86 million) and No. 25 Indianapolis (1.21 million). All told, the four surviving markets account for 7% of all TV households; if the Knicks had advanced, the combined reach would have jumped to 12.2% of all TV homes.

Meanwhile, as much as no team repping the Pacific Time Zone remains in play, the predominance of the two easternmost zones is hardly a deal-breaker for the league’s media partners, as these vast areas account for a staggering 77.2% of all U.S. TV households.

Geography aside, what’s of the utmost importance to Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery is duration. If a Game 7 represents the best-case scenario for fans, it’s also a blessing for advertisers and the people who dole out the in-game inventory. Until the Olympics kick off in 99 days, the NBA playoffs are the only place for marketers to get their messaging out to a massive audience of younger consumers, and rates for units purchased in a seventh game far outstrip those for earlier outings. For example, Game 7 of the 2022 Celtics-Heat Conference Finals scared up just shy of $20 million in ad revenue for ESPN, an 87% improvement versus the network’s Game 1 haul from just 12 nights earlier.

If the NBA is to muscle its way to another 21 nights of postseason drama, it will have to subvert the projections of the Vegas books. Oddsmakers in the desert overwhelmingly favor the Celtics to waltz into the Finals in five games, while the Timberwolves-Mavericks series is expected to end in six.

Through 63 games on the Disney and WBD networks, NBA advertisers have snapped up some $358.7 million worth of in-game inventory. Among the top spenders thus far include Google Pixel, AT&T and Wingstop. Also pouring money into the marketing funnel are a squadron of insurance brands (State Farm, Progressive, Allstate), three automakers (Ford, Kia, Toyota) and a pair of brewers (Modelo, Michelob). Universal Studios (The Fall Guy, Despicable Me 4) and Warner Bros. (Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga) together have spent nearly $10 million on playoff ads, while FanDuel and DraftKings have combined to snap up $6.7 million worth of units.

As for the AT&T “What a Pro Wants” spot that was the subject of much fascination earlier this spring, the wireless company seems to have pulled the creative from its national rotation. The last time Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chet Holmgren could be seen (and heard) warbling along to a 21-year-old Christina Aguilera song was on May 6. All told, the ad ran more than 500 times during various live sporting events, a spree that includes hundreds of in-game NBA and NHL playoff buys.

In the absence of the much-derided AT&T commercial, Wingstop has upped the ubiquity stakes with a Jenga-themed spot that already has aired 291 times during the NBA playoffs.

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(This article has been updated in the fifth paragraph with a comparison to 2022.)

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