Social media blowhards, armchair media analysts and the leader of the free world may all be making a big stink about the NBA’s bubble ratings of late, but network execs and advertisers thus far aren’t sweating the league’s deliveries.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the first day of the coronavirus-delayed 2020 NBA playoffs put up some unexceptional numbers on ESPN Monday, as the four-game set averaged 1.72 million viewers, a 1.2 household rating and a little more than 940,000 adults 18-49. Those numbers paled in comparison with the first four games of the 2019 postseason, which averaged 2.79 million viewers, a 1.7 rating and 1.34 million members of the dollar demo.
Only the late window, a 9:10 p.m. EDT nightcap featuring the Mavs and Clippers, topped the analogous telecast from last spring. Los Angeles’ 118-110 win averaged 2.28 million viewers, a 1.5 rating and 1.31 million adults 18-49, besting ESPN’s April 13, 2019 presentation at 10:30 p.m. EDT of San Antonio vs. Denver (1.83 million viewers, 1.1 rating, 1.06 million adults under 50). The comparison is not a perfect one; besides the obvious four-month delay, the 80-minute disparity in tipoff times effectively kept this year’s first late matchup out of the primetime window on the West Coast.
Also complicating matters is last year’s starting broadcast lineup. ABC, which in 2019 aired the NBA’s first East Coast primetime playoff showcase, was at the time available in 104.3 million TV homes, giving it a reach advantage of nearly 15 million homes compared to its cable sibling.
The Clippers-Warriors blowout averaged 4.83 million viewers, of whom 1.94 million were part of the all-important 18-49 set, and a 3.0 rating—more than doubling the turnout for Monday’s marquee game.
Since the NBA reconvened on July 30, the league’s top draw was the all-L.A. Clippers-Lakers nail-biter, which averaged 3.35 million viewers, a 2.1 rating and 2.02 million adults 18-49 on TNT. In steering his squad to a 103-101 victory on the first night back, LeBron James helped serve up the eighth most-watched, highest-rated NBA game of the 2019-20 season.
If the first day of playoff action didn’t exactly set the Nielsen meters on fire, the games still outperformed everything on broadcast TV. Even the lowest-rated of the four telecasts easily out-delivered the networks’ coverage of the Democratic National Convention, while the Mavs-Clippers outing that aired directly opposite the NBC, CBS and ABC broadcasts crushed Joe Biden’s opening night in the 18-49 demo. (In fact, you’d have to add up all three networks’ demo 10 p.m. deliveries to equal ESPN’s performance in the hour.)
While media buyers expect the playoff ratings to pick up as the first eight pairings progress—the biggest draw of last year’s opening round was Game 4 of the Clippers-Dubs series, which scared up 6.29 million viewers and a 3.8 rating on ABC—the commercial impressions won’t start piling up until the Conference Finals begin a month from now. As is the case with MLB postseason deliveries, the generation of outstanding NBA ratings depends on a blend of big-market teams, bold-face names and the accumulation of six- and seven-game series.
None of which is to suggest that the NBA doesn’t face an uphill climb. For one thing, the TV audience this summer is as small as it’s ever been, with overall usage down 19% to 73.8 million broadcast and cable viewers per night compared to the levels that were in play during the league’s traditional postseason launch in April (91.2 million). Network TV has taken a few elbows to the face, as the Big Four nets are down 42% versus the spring with an average draw of just 10.2 million viewers per night.
Meanwhile, the highly coveted younger viewers who account for so much of the NBA’s national fan base are harder to reach than ever before. In the three months since the summer TV season began, viewership among adults 18-49 has plummeted 36% compared to the relevant interval in 2019, as the Big Four are currently attracting fewer than 2 million members of the target demo per night. That’s down from 3.1 million last summer.
If the first quarter data is any indication, the young consumers who are integral to the NBA’s success aren’t terribly interested in watching a whole lot of linear TV. When compared with the same period in 2018, live and time-shifted TV usage among adults 18-34 in the January-to-March quarter plummeted 29% to just 1 hour and 37 minutes per day. But it’s not just the younger set that’s turned away from the tube; per Nielsen, for the first time ever, adults age 18 and up now spend more time each day with their phones (3 hours and 46 minutes) than they do in front of the set (3 hours and 43 minutes).
That the pool of potential viewers is shrinking—in July, cable TV penetration fell to 69% of all U.S. households, down from 81% in 2018—seems to be lost on critics who believe the NBA’s embrace of the Black Lives Matter cause may have alienated a portion of its fan base. President Donald Trump is perhaps the most prominent Ratings Truther, telling Clay Travis a week ago that the players’ ongoing show of support for the BLM movement is directly responsible for the league’s lower ratings.
“I think it’s been horrible for basketball,” Trump said on Travis’s August 11 Outkick the Coverage show. “Look at the basketball ratings. They’re down to very, very low numbers. People are angry about it…. They have enough politics with guys like me. They don’t need more as they’re driving down, going up for the shot. You know, they don’t need it. And there was a nastiness about the NBA, the way it was done, too. So I think that the NBA’s in trouble, I think it’s in big trouble—bigger trouble than they understand.”
Media buyers say the NBA’s demographic makeup effectively insulates it from any blowback, as the league’s young, urban audience is more likely to support BLM than, say, the average golf or NASCAR enthusiast. “This is the same argument we heard about the NFL ratings a couple years ago, and yet we never found any correlation between the [Colin] Kaepernick thing and the ratings shortfall,” said one national TV buyer whose client roster includes a number of in-game NBA advertisers. “The challenges that TV faces have more to do with the fundamental shift in how people consume media and how that consumption gets measured than any election-year chatter.”
Taking a similar stance is Mavs owner and digital gadfly Mark Cuban, who last week sparred with Travis on Twitter after the Outkick founder hyped Tucker Carlson’s recent Fox News Channel deliveries over the NBA’s bubble ratings. Cuban pointed out that the ESPN and TNT telecasts generally make short work of Carlson’s show in the target demo—worth noting: Fox News guarantees against its deliveries of adults 25-54, which makes comparisons on both sides an apples-to-hand-grenades situation—before adding that there’s a reason “why advertisers pay 3x or more for a prime time NBA spot.”
For good or ill, the supply-and-demand model that dictates how TV is bought or sold puts a premium on scarcity. When the supply of younger adults contracts, the cost of reaching them goes up. As long as advertisers are willing to pay more for fewer impressions, the NBA ratings will remain a non-issue. At the same time, should ABC luck into a Lakers-Bucks or Lakers-Celtics Finals that goes the full seven frames, no one with skin in the game will so much as remember the summer ratings hiccup.