NBA Playoff Ratings Soar Thanks to Revived Warriors, Hungry Celtics

·4 min read

In spite of a stretch of blowouts and the ongoing erosion of TV usage, the 2022 NBA playoffs are putting on a heck of a show, and the highest ratings in five years.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the first two rounds of postseason play averaged 4.08 million viewers across ABC, ESPN and TNT, giving the networks their highest audience numbers since 2018. Through the last conference semifinals matchup on May 15, the NBA’s deliveries have improved 15% versus the year-ago 3.56 million viewers and are up 7% compared to the analogous period in 2019.

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Including the seven first-round games televised on NBA TV, the playoffs are averaging 3.71 million viewers, which marks the strongest turnout for the spring slate since 2014. That said, NBA TV’s impressions are generally not factored into the postseason ratings calculus, as the channel has a much smaller footprint than the other cable networks. (With a head count of 42.4 million subscribers, NBA TV is available in 36.3 million fewer homes than TNT and ESPN and falls shy of ABC’s reach by a good 50 million homes. As such, the ad rates for the games carried by the league-owned outlet are significantly lower than the fees collected by the core trio of fully distributed networks.)

Thus far, the bulk of the NBA’s ratings points have been served up by the revived Golden State Warriors and a young Boston Celtics squad led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The May 1 Warriors-Grizzlies opener now stands as the most-watched second-round game in 10 years, averaging 7.71 million viewers on ABC, while the Bucks-Celtics finale on May 15 (7.48 million) nearly matched the earlier figure.

Boston’s 109-81 rout of the defending champs peaked at 9.56 million viewers. Two weeks earlier, the Warriors’ 117-116 Game 1 squeaker topped off at 10.2 million viewers.

The six-game Memphis-Golden State series now stands as the most-watched set of the playoffs, averaging 5.92 million viewers. Having gone the distance in Boston, the Celtics-Bucks series ranks second, with an average draw of 5.28 million viewers.

Golden State’s return to the playoffs and Boston’s outsized historical impact on the NBA have advertisers all but dribbling over the prospect of a Warriors-Celtics clash in the Finals. However things shake out in the conference finals, the first month of the postseason tournament has paid off for marketers, who in the previous upfront bazaar paid premiums of 20% or more versus the year-ago rates.

Those pricing hikes and a heavier game load should add up to a small fortune for the networks when all is said and done. If the level of competition in the final three series remains as frenzied as it was over the first two rounds, marketers like AT&T, Google and Taco Bell will have spent north of $800 million on in-game ad inventory. Pricing for the sold-out Celtics-Heat and Mavericks-Warriors series exceeded $320,000 per 30-second unit.

While volatility can be a TV network chief’s best friend, advertisers are rooting for tighter games. The average margin of victory in last week’s pair of Game 7s was a less-than-gripping 30.5 points, and blowouts became the norm throughout the conference semis. The most one-sided contest to date was the Grizzlies’ 39-point shredding of the Warriors on May 11; predictably enough, this was the least-watched game of the series, drawing 4.82 million viewers. (While low by Golden State’s standards, that unexpected dismantling still out-delivered each of the half-dozen games of the Sixers-Heat set.)

If nothing else, the NBA’s ratings momentum goes a long way toward refuting the notion that the league can’t put up big numbers in the absence of LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. Still, it’s worth noting that today’s ratings data is boosted considerably by the addition of out-of-home impressions to Nielsen’s vanilla TV sample. The impact of the bonus deliveries can be estimated by comparing household ratings from one year to the next; given an average OOH contribution of around 400,000 viewers per game, the in-home playoff viewership is down 1% versus 2019.

None of which throws any shade on the NBA’s recent success. After all, OOH impressions are now part of the official ratings currency, which means the deliveries achieved in bars, restaurants, gyms and other public venues very much count toward the networks’ guarantees. That the 2022 numbers are effectively flat versus the comparable period in 2019 still counts as a win, given that overall TV usage has dropped by around 28% in the last three years.

The Western Conference Finals tip off tonight at 9 EDT on TNT. On the other coast, the Heat on Tuesday grabbed an early 1-0 lead over the Celtics, as Jimmy Butler racked up 41 points in a decisive 118-107 victory.

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