LOS ANGELES (AP) — The NBA was banking on Zion Williamson and the Golden State Warriors as main attractions when the television schedules were released in August. Less than three weeks into the season, the league's television partners are still trying to assess the fallout from injuries.
Williamson's knee injury and Steph Curry's broken hand have many wondering if ratings will suffer. In the case of the New Orleans Pelicans, there is cause for worry.
The Pelicans are on either ESPN, TNT or NBATV in all but eight of their first 19 games. The league routinely frontloads television appearances with the top picks early, figuring their teams will not be in contention after the All-Star break. Despite also having Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, New Orleans hasn't been a big TV draw without Williamson.
Their opener against Toronto on Opening Night averaged 2.25 million viewers on TNT, which was a 24% drop from last year's opener between Philadelphia and Boston. It was also the first time since 2016 that the league's opener went up against Game 1 of the World Series.
Last Thursday's game against Oklahoma City also was down sharply compared to the same window last season. The 784,000 average was a 60% drop from last year's Nuggets-Lakers game.
How much of a ratings hit the depleted Warriors will take will start to be known beginning this week. Golden State will be on ESPN four times from over the next two weeks, beginning with Wednesday's game at Houston. The others are Nov. 13 at the Lakers, Nov. 15 vs. Boston and at Dallas on Nov. 20.
The Warriors' first national broadcast on Oct. 24 against the Los Angeles Clippers averaged 2.26 million, but that was down compared to the same window last year, which was LeBron James' debut with the Lakers (3.31 million).
TNT isn't scheduled to air another Warriors game until Jan. 16 against Denver. But that will mark the first of 11 appearances until the end of the season. A Turner spokesman told The Associated Press that it is still early for them to discuss scheduling changes with the league.
The league has become more flexible with ESPN and TNT about scheduling changes, but in the case of TNT, there aren't many options since Thursday's schedule is light.
Charles Barkley said during a recent "Inside the NBA" luncheon in Los Angeles that "there are some nights when we come in and we know it is going to be a long night due to the matchups. That's when we know we have to be more entertaining."
ESPN has more games to choose from on Wednesday and Friday nights, but any changes are unlikely until January since production and travel schedules are pretty set. ESPN declined comment when asked if it has discussed any changes with the league.
An NBA spokesperson said that all flexible scheduling changes are decided on a case-by-case basis.
Not all NBA ratings news is bad, though. The Clippers-Lakers opener on Oct. 22 was the highest-viewed game of the week at 3.58 million while both of ESPN's games on Oct. 23 were up 9% and 12% from last season
"There are more teams and players to be interested about from a national basis," Van Gundy said. "This is one of the more exciting years probably since the Warriors' dynasty started because it is so wide open. We are going to see a lot more ups and downs than teams cruising through the season. See them go on runs and then handle a lot of adversity."