The 2019 NBA Playoffs experienced a pronounced viewership decline (-13% YoY) through the Conference Finals (NBA Finals ratings are also down). Underwhelming post-season ratings followed a regular season that saw the league’s four national networks (ABC, ESPN, TNT NBA TV) lose -5% of their collective audience YoY. There’s no obvious solution to reversing the trend – leagues across the sporting landscape are struggling with the issue as consumer habits change – but Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has suggested that the NBA begin to base the start times of games on when they would be most attractive to television viewers. The Shark Tank star reasoned that because the league generates “far more revenue” from its broadcast agreements than it does at the gate, maximizing the television audience should be its top priority. Cuban isn’t concerned that attendance would suffer if games were to start at unconventional times adding, “we don’t have to worry about people showing up for the games – whatever time we make it, they’re going to show up.”
Howie Long-Short: Terry Lyons, a 26-year veteran of the NBA league office (and a renegade voice during David Stern’s tenure), doesn’t dispute that broadcast rights offer the greatest opportunity for revenue growth or that the most fanatical of fans watch more games on television than they do at the arena, so he understands why Cuban would suggest the league use analytics to determine game times. But he feels strongly that television can’t be the sole driver of the decision – the league must adopt “a hybrid model that allows teams to still do right by their season ticket holders.”
While Lyons understands Cuban’s thought process, he’s quick to point out that the billionaire owner is using some faulty logic. “If the league used analytics to identify its largest potential television audience, it would be optimizing the schedule for time zones in China, Japan and Australia – not in North America. Assuming you can play games at times inconvenient for the season-ticket holder and expecting them to show up is also a very scary and arrogant position to take.” It’s hard for me to argue with Lyons. Television times need to account for the domestic market and with attendance already a problem across just about every league (it was flat YoY for the NBA), it’s unclear how anyone could believe that moving games to less optimal times wouldn’t result in fewer fans showing up?
Lyons also isn’t on board with altering the start times of games played in the Pacific Time Zone to appease the league’s east coast fan and media contingent (as Adam Silver suggested it might do). “Teams playing in the Western Conference have a commitment to their local markets. Playing games in the middle of the afternoon – when most people are at work – simply isn’t the way to develop or maintain a fan base.” There’s also a case to be made that the 10:30p EST window provides the league with a time slot that it can dominate with little else in the way of live sports programming on the air at that time.
The NBA starts Finals games as late as 9:00p EST for the simple fact that they draw more viewers at that time than it would if the games started at 7:00p EST and the goal is to put the games on when the greatest number of people (within the U.S.) are watching. Curmudgeons like Phil Mushnick will whine that the late starts prevent the next generation of fans from watching, but that assumes Gen-Zs want to watch 48 minutes of basketball – and the research indicates that’s not the case. There’s really is no simple solution. As Terry said, “Time zones are a relentless problem that aren’t going away.”
Fan Marino: I’m certainly not on board with any changes to the schedule that result in teams playing games in front of fewer fans. As Lyons said, “there is a huge advantage to having a packed stadium. That energy has a direct effect on the game itself and the way that the players perform.” It also has an impact on the fan experience, both in stadium and on TV. I’ll find myself watching Duke home games, that I would flip right past if the team was playing on the road, simply because the energy in Cameron Indoor is captivating.
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