NBA Broadcasts Experience Early-Season Slump

Analysis of Viewership Numbers Reveals Slight Decline

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NBA
Published 
December 7, 2021
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5
 min read

Each of the past two NBA opening nights has featured ring ceremonies for the defending champions, several of the league’s generational superstars, and matchups featuring some of the most recognizable franchises across North American sports. But aside from the scheduling blueprint, there are few parallels between the season-opening showcases. The shortened 2020-2021 campaign began in late December with limited or no fans in attendance after only a brief hiatus following a season that was dramatically altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. This season, the league returned to its regular mid-October start and a full 82-game schedule. Furthermore, thanks to enhanced safety measures and medical breakthroughs, fans are free to attend games en masse while also resuming other pre-pandemic routines. We analyzed the audience trends from the opening month of each season to gain insights regarding NBA fans’ viewership habits. Our study focused on a representative set of nationally televised games across TNT and the ESPN family of networks. Though both seasons began with strong opening night numbers, the current campaign is in the midst of an early-season slump.

Christmas Day Games Catalyze Momentum

Christmas Day is to the NBA what Thanksgiving Day is to the NFL. Fans of the league and its premier teams know they can expect an afternoon and evening full of spectacular games to watch after gifts have been exchanged and meals have been enjoyed. Most seasons, these games kickstart a wave of interest as teams are finding their rhythm heading into the new calendar year. But last year, they served as a jumping-off point for fans who were yearning for entertainment during an unusually dormant period on the sporting calendar. The 2020-2021 season began on TNT as the Warriors traveled to Brooklyn to face the Nets and the Lakers squared off against the Clippers in a battle for L.A. bragging rights. The games drew an average viewership of 3.32 million fans and lifted league-wide interest heading into the holiday slate only three days later. The Christmas Day broadcasts on ESPN and ABC drew 1.42x as many viewers than any other day throughout the first month of last season, and the primetime matchup between the L.A. Lakers and Dallas Mavericks had twice as many viewers – 7.68 million – as any other game during the period. As a result, first month numbers for last year significantly outpace totals from the 2021-2022 season. Overall average viewership is down 21% from 2.14 million to 1.7 million for nationally televised games. But even without the Christmas Day boon, viewership is down roughly 8% from 1.85 million. League executives are surely hopeful another star-studded tinsel time lineup will attract an influx of viewers.


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Turner Sports Looking for a Turnaround

Across all games, ESPN’s viewership numbers experienced a 23% year-over-year decline in viewership during the season’s first month. However, that can mostly be attributed to the spike in viewership for Christmas Day games. By removing that slate, we found ESPN’s numbers to be relatively flat at 1.82 million per contest. The difference between this season and last is a mere 4,081 viewers on average. However, the outlook is not as positive at TNT. Last season, TNT’s average audience of 1.87 million viewers during the first month slightly surpassed ESPN’s 1.83 million viewers. But the network has experienced a sharp decline this season, averaging only 1.51 million viewers per game through mid-November. Not only is that a 19% dip from last season, but it is more than 312,000 viewers less than ESPN games attract on average. Several factors may be contributing to the regression. In addition to an abundance of additional entertainment options across the sporting landscape that were not present during the first few weeks of the 2020-2021 season, TNT has shifted its early-season schedule. Many longtime fans associate NBA on TNT broadcasts with Thursday nights. However, to avoid competing for viewers with the NFL and its Thursday Night Football games, TNT broadcasts have temporarily moved to Tuesday. The network plans to resume its Thursday night doubleheaders in the new year, but only time will tell if the usual time slot buoys viewership totals.

Familiar Headliners Maintain Top Billing

The NBA has long been a star-driven league, and the free agency carousel over the last decade or more has only served to strengthen that foundation. Fans regularly tune in to watch the superhuman exploits of LeBron James, the otherworldly scoring ability of Kevin Durant, and the silky touch of Stephen Curry. Network executives understand what their audiences want to see, which is why the Lakers, Nets, and Warriors are a mainstay on NBA broadcasts. Across all telecasts from the first month of the past two seasons, each of these teams was featured at least seven times. They finished first, second, and third, respectively, in average viewership among all teams broadcast more than once. The Lakers led the way with an average audience of 2.22 million viewers, while the Nets had 2.16 million and the Warriors drew 2.14 million. Teams in smaller markets must rely on a combination of likable players and winning to attract viewers. No small-market team in the league over the last two years has perfected that formula better than the Milwaukee Bucks, who won their first championship in a half-century last year and have averaged 1.86 million viewers during the opening months of the past two seasons. Their NBA Finals counterparts, the Phoenix Suns, have also shone brightly on the heels of their Western Conference championship. Telecasts featuring Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and company have jumped 20% year-over-year.

League Eyes Next Chance to Lift Averages

An 82-game season spanning six months is prone to lulls and down periods, but the NBA has been slow out of the gate this year compared to last. More competition for viewers, atypical TV schedules, and the absence of an NBA-centric day on the calendar may all be reasons for the decline, but the league is surely eager to reverse the trend. The next big chance to boost broadcast numbers comes in less than three weeks, when ESPN and ABC will air contests featuring prominent teams including the Celtics, Lakers, Bucks, Warriors, and Nets from noon on Christmas Day until after midnight on the East Coast. Look for our report on viewership totals and trends in major designated market areas throughout each of the five marquee matchups.

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