NBA television ratings down first weekend of playoffs (following season trend)

Kurt Helin
NBC Sports

There was some serious competition for eyeballs last weekend when the NBA opened its playoffs with eight games over two days. Most importantly, Tiger Woods was on the leaderboard (and eventually won) The Masters, and that was the big draw for sports fans all weekend. Then by Sunday night, Game of Thrones was all anyone wanted to talk about.

Still, NBA television ratings were down for the first weekend of action, in some cases by more than 40 percent. Paulson at Sports Media Watch broke down the numbers.

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Ratings and viewership declined double-digits for all-but-one NBA playoff window over the weekend. The exception was Saturday’s Clippers-Warriors Game 1, which had a 3.0 and 4.83 million on ABC in primetime — up 7% in ratings and 13% in viewership from ABC’s opener last postseason (Spurs-Warriors: 2.8, 4.28M) and up 20% in both measures from its 2017 opener (Pacers-Cavaliers: 2.5, 4.04M). Those games aired in the afternoon.

Versus the same window last year, Heat-Sixers on ESPN, ratings and viewership both increased 20% (from 2.5 and 4.02M)…

The rest of the weekend was a dud. On Sunday, ABC earned a 2.55 and 3.90 million for Thunder-Blazers Game 1 — down 32% in ratings and 34% in viewership from last year (Pacers-Cavaliers: 3.8, 5.94M) and down 31% and 40% respectively from 2017 (Blazers-Warriors: 3.7, 6.52M). It was ABC’s least-watched opening weekend playoff game in four years (2015 Pelicans-Warriors: 3.49M).

While there have been entertaining series in the first round — Brooklyn/Philadelphia and Portland/Oklahoma City in particular — only one series, Denver and San Antonio, will go at least six and maybe seven. That does not help. On the bright side for the NBA, the matchups get far more compelling in the second round, Houston and Golden State out West, and both series in the East (Philly vs. Toronto, Boston vs. Milwaukee).

Also, there is no LeBron James in the playoffs. Stars are draws.

While the numbers (both on traditional broadcast and cable) were down, and were this season for the league, this is more of a broad trend across sports. With the advent of streaming and changing view habits, live NBA games (and sports in general) can provide one of the few “must watch live” moments, which makes it valuable to advertisers and networks. However, capturing those viewers, particularly younger ones under the age of 35, is much more difficult. There’s a reason the NBA started offering streamed snippets of games on their streaming services (you could buy just 10 minutes of league pass, or tune in at the end of a close game just to watch that finale). Getting those viewers in front of a traditional television is not as easy as it once was.

It’s something the NBA thinks a lot about. It’s also something every professional sports league around the globe is struggling with.

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