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Breaking Down the NBA Broadcast Competition

Turner’s Studio Shows, Game Broadcasts Edge ESPN’s First-Round Viewership

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May 18, 2023
May 18, 2023
 min read

The NBA playoffs differ greatly from the grueling 82-game regular season every team navigates from October until April. Once the postseason begins, star players increase their workloads, intensity ratchets up to a new level, and legacies are cemented. But among the few constants are the league’s broadcast partners. The same familiar announcing crews and studio shows that fans have welcomed into their living rooms since Opening Night are a steady presence throughout the two-month sprint to a title. The ESPN family of networks and Turner Sports are the league’s most visible broadcast partners, so MVP endeavored to determine if either media group exhibited a larger audience base or broader marketing opportunities by virtue of their reach during the first round of the 2023 NBA Playoffs. Between them, ESPN and TNT broadcast 31 of the opening round’s 43 games – with the other 12 split between ABC and NBATV. We isolated ESPN and TNT for their similar linear television scope and compared their viewership figures overall and across DMAs while also highlighting the impact of their pregame studio shows. Our analysis revealed one network enjoyed 14 of the top 17 game broadcast audiences, suggesting media buyers have significant ROI potential across its airwaves.

Pivotal Games 6 Buoy ESPN Averages

A pair of Friday night games in the Golden State was essential to elevate ESPN’s first-round profile in this year’s NBA playoffs. The Worldwide Leader in Sports aired a pair of Games 6 on April 28 – beginning with a Northern California battle between the Kings and Warriors at 8 p.m. ET and followed by a series-clinching home victory for the Lakers over Memphis at 10:30 p.m. ET – and they would ultimately be the two largest audiences across the network during the opening round. A combination of factors including the pivotal nature of a Game 6 and the superstar appeal associated with Golden State and the Lakers coalesced to draw TV audiences of 4.46 million for the early game and 4.43 million for the late tilt. Moreover, they were necessary to bring ESPN’s average viewership during the round up to 3.33 million – a figure that would have been a mere 3.01 million without them. TNT broadcast only one game that exceeded 4 million viewers – Game 5 between the Warriors and Kings attracted 4.28 million – but it consistently drew more than 3.5 million fans, resulting in the seven largest audiences after the Friday night ESPN duet from California and 14 of the top 17 audiences overall between the two networks. Across 22 games, TNT averaged 3.48 million viewers to surpass ESPN’s average for nine games by 4.5%. But the median figures for each network revealed a starker contrast, with TNT’s median audience of 3.52 million eclipsing ESPN’s median viewership of 3.1 million by 13.6%. A consistently larger audience and significantly higher average when accounting for outliers suggest a more loyal built-in fan base for TNT than ESPN. Home markets will tune in to watch their favorite teams regardless of which network carries a game, but Turner Sports has used its platform and personalities to develop a following that attracts casual fans on a nightly basis, and TNT’s studio show continues to cultivate and charm that crowd.

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TNT NBA Tip-Off Sets the Stage

The TNT studio shows – both before an evening’s slate of games and after its conclusion – have become part of the NBA viewing experience for fans over the years. Its personalities including Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kenny Smith have likewise become ubiquitous with the network’s coverage. ESPN’s NBA Countdown has a similar style – a panel of experts previewing upcoming games on the network – but it has not yet created an affinity that resonates among fans to the level of TNT’s production, as evidenced by viewership totals through two weeks of the 2023 NBA postseason. During the period, TNT aired 10 pregame shows, while ESPN and ESPN2 collectively broadcast four of their own. TNT owned the top six places in our viewership rankings for the set, averaging 1.43 million viewers for its NBA Tip-Off broadcasts. Meanwhile, ESPN’s largest audience was 1.32 million on the postseason’s opening day and its average was a paltry 890,757. A further indication of ESPN’s pregame show being less appealing than its TNT counterpart was an audience of only 457,609 for its hour-long ESPN2 broadcast on April 28. Despite that night’s Games 6 attracting the largest cable TV audiences of the round, the pregame show attracted only 10.3% of the viewership for the Warriors/Kings game that began immediately following its conclusion.

Also of note, many of the country’s top media markets – representing regions north and south, east and west – noticed vast viewership discrepancies between the pregame shows. Such differences should be relevant to media buyers interested in promoting their brands and services to the masses because their reach is unambiguously greater on TNT. While TNT’s average overall viewership was 60% higher than ESPN’s typical audience, that difference was even greater in population-dense markets. Viewership in Washington, DC was 94.6% higher for TNT than ESPN during pregame programs, and markets including Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas-Fort Worth likewise exceeded a 90% chasm. Additionally, TNT drew pregame audiences that were 78.2% higher than ESPN’s average in New York City, 70.5% higher in San Francisco, and 42.5% higher in Philadelphia.

Turner Enjoys Biggest Series Audience Gaps

Seven of the NBA’s first-round series had at least one game broadcast on each of the networks we compared for this analysis, with the Clippers-Suns series being the lone exception. And of those, four had a larger average audience on TNT than on ESPN. The largest sample size came in the series between Boston and Atlanta, whose Games 1 and 3 aired on ESPN – on a Friday and a Saturday – and Games 4-6 were shown on TNT. And despite traditionally less-appealing broadcast windows, the games broadcast on TNT averaged 25.1% more viewers, with all three games surpassing ESPN’s highest total in the series. Other series that drew more average viewers on TNT included Nets-76ers and Timberwolves-Nuggets, which favored Turner’s broadcasts by 23.6% and 18.4%, respectively. Additionally, Miami’s first-round upset of Milwaukee had a higher average viewership on TNT than ESPN, with Game 4 – which followed a TNT NBA Tip-Off show – enjoying a 10.9% boost over ESPN’s broadcast of Game 3.

The Warriors-Kings series had the highest skew in favor of ESPN. However, its only game on the network was Game 6, which had the largest first-round cable TV audience. Nevertheless, the Northern California rivals enjoyed TNT’s highest average for a series, as their three contests on the network drew 4 million household viewers per game. While Knicks-Cavaliers and Lakers-Grizzlies also had an ESPN lean, the differences were only 6.4% and 6.8%, respectively, with LA-Memphis still having two of its top three audiences on TNT. Overall, the large audience differences in TNT’s favor compared to the relatively smaller deltas in series where ESPN had the higher average imply the former has a broader inherent reach for itself, the league, and their sponsors on the biggest stage. When all things are equal and coverage is shared across series, this year’s first round intimates prospective partners may be better served spending their marketing dollars with Turner.

Conference Finals Divide by Network

MVP’s broadcast platform has a bevy of tools capable of measuring audience sizes, determining broadcast brand values, and isolating peak program periods to help leagues and brands maximize their marketing opportunities. As TNT and ESPN each take ownership of a conference finals series – TNT airing the East and ESPN broadcasting the West – we will continue to monitor any viewership trends and how they can affect brand value potential ahead of next season.

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