As much as news coverage of the very first COVID-19 vaccinations have in some way helped foster the illusion that we’ll all be putting this crummy year behind us in short order, there’s a long stretch of road ahead before we’ll hit the outskirts of whatever Normal will look like. This applies to sports as with everything else, and while the return of the NBA promises a surface-level gleam of the commonplace—there’ll be hoops on Christmas Day, and the holiday revels won’t be confined to the Disney bubble—the coming season in many respects is likely to be as weird as the one that wrapped just 68 days ago.
Since you can’t miss something that never really went away, the 2020-21 NBA season will tip off with an exercise in instant nostalgia, as Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors embark on their comeback tour. On Tuesday night, the thrice-crowned champ will take the court for the first time since March 5, when Curry staged what he’d hoped would be a sustained comeback effort after having sat out the previous four months with a busted left hand.
If the NBA’s TV ratings are to rebound, Curry’s going to have to put in a hell of a lot more minutes than he did last spring. After putting up 23 points in a losing effort against the Toronto Raptors, Curry was back on the IR with a bad case of the flu. Four days later, Utah’s Rudy Gobert came down with what was decidedly not the flu, and the NBA suspended the season.
Curry’s restart coincides with the NBA’s opening-night doubleheader, a Tuesday twofer on TNT that tips at 7 p.m. ET, or a full hour before last season’s analogous Pelicans-Raptors pairing. The Dubs take on former confrère Kevin Durant and longtime antagonist Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn before throwing to Clippers-Lakers at 10 p.m. That’s a good 30 minutes earlier than last season’s all-L.A. tip, which should give basketball fans in the Eastern time zone, which accounts for 48% of all U.S. TV homes, little excuse for bowing out early.
In a season of turmoil, the meetings between the two Staples Center residents were the only constant. On the first night of the blighted 2019-20 campaign, Kawhi Leonard steered the Clips to a 112-102 victory over LeBron James and the Lakers in a game that delivered 3.58 million viewers on TNT, up 32% versus the year-ago Thunders-Warriors telecast. The rivalry spawned a clutch of high-rated games, including a Christmas showdown on ABC/ESPN that averaged a season-high 8.76 million viewers. (Only Game 5 of the Lakers-Heat Final would put up bigger numbers, and by a margin of just 135,000 viewers.)
Tuesday’s openers will give way to a Dec. 23 showdown between the Bucks and Celtics, two teams that look to represent the Eastern Conference in the 2021 NBA Finals. ESPN relieves TNT at 10:30 p.m. with a Mavs-Suns outing.
TNT probably couldn’t ask for a more promising three-game stretch. “The league had to come out guns a-blazin’ in order to guarantee that there would be as much fan interest leading up to Christmas,” said Jon Diament, executive vice president and chief revenue officer at Turner Sports. “I think the cadence is going to come back to the league. As opposed to the restart, when the NBA was basically forced to sort of jam four games in every day, some at one o’clock in the afternoon, some at four, this gets us back to more familiar ground.”
Diament acknowledges that he’ll be using some of his early-season inventory to make up for the ratings shortfalls of 2019-20, which have been well-documented. “There are some liabilities that will carry over, but that’s nothing new,” Diament said, noting that TNT’s NBA ratings had been impacted by LeBron’s move to the West Coast and an overabundance of Pelicans games in which Zion Williamson was a no-show. “But there’s less of a shortfall if you diversify. We don’t just sell in-game on TNT; we also sell NBA TV, NBA.com, Bleacher Report…”
Aside from an abundance of platforms against which to sell, TNT’s NBA business is bolstered by the consistency of its client base. More than 50% of the network’s pro hoops revenue originates with official NBA marketing partners such as Kia Motors, American Express, AT&T, Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Michelob Ultra and State Farm. And the league’s newest backer is already pumping marketing dollars into TNT’s coffers: Having been sworn in just yesterday as the official auto retailer of the NBA, CarMax is taking over the sponsorship of the pregame show, NBA Tip-Off.
CarMax replaces the outgoing Autotrader, which had served for the last 16 years as the presenting sponsor of TNT’s pregame efforts and an official NBA sponsor. In addition to its league-wide pact, CarMax is now also the auto retailer of record for the Clippers, Blazers and Warriors.
Thus far, TNT’s most active in-game NBA categories include telecom, beer/wine, consumer packaged goods, fast food/casual dining restaurants and streaming services.
If fan interest may be tempered by the short layoff, advertisers seem eager enough for the NBA to start anew. Tuesday night’s telecasts are sold out, with more than 40 brands having signed on for the TNT doubleheader. Along with CarMax, look for new Turner Sports/Bleacher Report marketing partner FanDuel to make a splash during in-game coverage and via the B/R app.
Diament said that early in-game sales suggest that advertisers may want to take longer positions in TNT while they still can. “It’s hard to say what the new normal is going to look like, because last season was such an anomaly,” Diament said. “But we’re seeing a lot of money coming in early, and in a big way. Now is not the time to play the scatter game.”