Despite news that the NBA on TNT and ESPN suffered year-over-year ratings declines through the first month, there is no season-long concern over dwindling interest in the league. In fact, current data and projections from both networks, along with NBA TV and regional sports networks, shows viewership is consistent with last year’s ratings hike and could exceed those figures with a back-loaded schedule.
As Sports Business Daily reported, NBA viewership declined 26 percent on TNT and six percent on ESPN when compared to the first month of last season, largely due to a less compelling opening-night schedule and LeBron James’ move to a later time slot. That is all true. The networks also anticipated that dip, projecting that higher-profile games in the short- and long-term would negate the difference.
Exhibit A: LeBron’s Los Angeles Lakers appeared on national television in the early time slot for the first time this season on Nov. 21, the same day those seemingly alarming early figures were reported. That homecoming game against the Cleveland Cavaliers drew an average of 3.8 million viewers to ESPN — the highest-rated regular season game of this season and most viewed regular-season game on the network since 2014 — all but erasing the six percent decline reported earlier in the day.
In other words, short-term ratings spikes or declines are fickle. They can literally change overnight.
Following Wednesday’s games (Oklahoma City Thunder at New Orleans Pelicans and Toronto Raptors at Golden State Warriors), ESPN’s viewership is even to this point last season and up from two years ago. The league projects its five-game Christmas slate on ESPN and ABC — highlighted by Lakers at Warriors and Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics — will bump ratings ahead of last year’s numbers.
ABC’s Saturday night primetime NBA schedule does not begin until mid-January, and it is replete with high-profile games between the Lakers, Warriors, Celtics, 76ers, Thunder and Houston Rockets. In total, ESPN and ABC will feature 15 more Lakers games this season, including four in early time slots.
Last year’s opening-night schedule, featuring Kyrie Irving’s return to Cleveland to face LeBron as a member of the Celtics and the unveiling of Chris Paul’s Rockets against the Warriors, was a record-setter for the NBA, and this year’s LeBron-less slate — a blowout Boston win over Philadelphia and a Warriors win over the Russell Westbrook-less Thunder — put TNT in an early hole by comparison. The network may still be climbing out of it, but TNT averaged 1.8 million viewers through the end of November, up 3 percent against its season-long average of 1.7 million viewers last regular season.
TNT is also banking on a back-loaded schedule in terms of high-profile matchups and a Martin Luther King Day slate culminating in another Lakers-Warriors tilt to boost ratings further ahead of last year’s figures. The two-time defending champion Warriors will play a total of four games on the network next month. And the Lakers’ 8 p.m. EST game against the Rockets on Thursday night is the first of 11 more games featuring LeBron on TNT, four of which are in primetime, including Lakers-Celtics on Feb. 7.
Elsewhere, NBA TV is roughly even with its average viewership from last season, and a majority of regional sports networks have experienced season-to-date ratings gains, led by the Denver Nuggets, whose viewership on Altitude Sports has risen 147 percent along with the team’s early success. Likewise, Rookie Luka Doncic has helped boost the Dallas Mavericks’ ratings 100 percent from last year. The Lakers, Rockets and Utah Jazz have also seen ratings increases of 30 percent or better.
Another encouraging sign in the league’s quest for higher ratings than last year’s four-year high is that the Toronto Raptors — a team that has longed for more national TV love and underdelivered viewers when given the chance — are drawing a larger audience, thanks to the arrival of Kawhi Leonard. Wednesday night’s late game against Golden State marked Toronto’s highest rating ever on ESPN.
The increased number of star-studded teams in the East and a stunning amount of depth in the West should create some wild playoff races down the stretch of this season, which, combined with flex scheduling, have NBA front-office types confident that the decline in ratings over the first month is merely an obstacle on its way to increased popularity in the face of cord-cutting and Warriors fatigue.
None of this even takes into account the NBA emergence as a leader on social media, a topic Seerat Sohi, the newest member of our Yahoo Sports NBA team, covered in great detail before the season.
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