The extent to which the NBA relies on LeBron James to power its national TV ratings is impossible to overstate, and if history is any guide, the Los Angeles Lakers’ elimination from the postseason is almost certain to derail the early gains made by the league’s network partners. But as much as James’ exit is an unwelcome development, Disney and Turner Sports won’t go down without a fight, as teams representing three of the four largest media markets remain suited up for the conference semifinals.
Hobbled by injuries throughout the 2020-21 campaign—James and a beleaguered Anthony Davis this season appeared together in just 27 of their 72 scheduled regular-season games—the Lakers on Thursday night saw their title defense come to an end at the hands of a young Phoenix Suns squad. The two big men shared the court for all of five minutes during the Lakers’ 113-100 loss, after an already all-but incapacitated Davis re-aggravated the groin injury that had knocked him out of Game 4.
In the end, James’ shoulders weren’t sufficiently broad to carry the entire load, and for the first time in his 18-year NBA career, he found himself ousted from the playoffs in the first round. If that was a less-than-optimal result for the four-time champion, LeBron’s early exit may prove to be an even harder pill to swallow for the networks. Not for nothing did the late David Stern crack that the ideal matchup in the 2004 NBA Finals would be “the Lakers versus the Lakers;” but for the Jordan Era in Chicago and the 2015-18 Cavs-Warriors rivalry, L.A. has been the league’s top draw from Wilt though Magic to Kobe and Shaq.
Since the season began on Dec. 22, just 71 days after James and Davis closed out their title run against the Heat, the Lakers have been the NBA’s top draw, appearing in each of the league’s three most-watched telecasts, and six of the top 10. The Christmas Mavs-Lakers showcase on ABC/ESPN remains the season’s biggest draw thus far, averaging 6.95 million viewers. On May 19, ESPN scared up 5.62 million viewers with its coverage of the Warriors-Lakers play-in game, which ended the comeback efforts of Steph Curry and a Golden State team that was the NBA’s top local draw and second-biggest national attraction.
The Lakers’ drawing power continued throughout their brief playoff run, as ABC’s broadcast of Game 4 of the Suns series averaged 5.38 million viewers, making it the most-watched opening-round postseason game since the Clippers and Dubs averaged 6.29 million viewers on April 21, 2019. Game 1, which aired May 23 in ABC’s Sunday afternoon playoff window, now stands as the tournament’s second-biggest draw (4.43 million).
As much as the Lakers have been instrumental in bolstering the opening-round deliveries, the overall enthusiasm for the playoffs has been exaggerated by comparisons to last season’s deliveries from within the bubble. Through the first 12 games that have aired on ABC and ESPN, the Disney nets are averaging 3.06 million viewers per outing, and while that marks a 49% improvement versus the Mouse House’s first dozen games of the 2020 playoffs, it’s rather disingenuous to suggest that the historically low bubble deliveries make for a viable baseline. Better instead to juxtapose this year’s numbers with the pre-pandemic turnout from 2019; Disney’s playoff coverage is currently up 3% compared to the 2.98 million viewers it averaged during the analogous period two years ago.
TNT is seeing similar results in the early going, averaging 2.81 million viewers over the course of its first 15 playoff telecasts, up 4% from the 2.69 million fans it was pulling in at the same stage in 2019.
As Turner Sports has dibs to this year’s Eastern Conference Finals, TNT could get a lot of mileage out of a pairing of the top-seeded Nets and Sixers. With the Lakers out of the picture, Brooklyn’s mirthless band of mercenaries is the NBA’s top draw, and a showdown between the nation’s No. 1 and No. 4 media markets would automatically give TNT a leg up. (Together, the two cities account for 9% of all U.S. TV households.) ESPN, for its part, can still hope for a deep run by the No. 2 team from the No. 2 market, although the Clippers will have to get past Utah, the top seed in the West, if they are to advance to the Conference Finals.
For all the talk about Brooklyn’s well-compensated superteam, fans have only seen the occasional glimpse of what the Nets are capable of when they’re at full strength. James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant played just eight games together during the regular season, and after sitting out the last 47 minutes of Saturday’s 115-107 win over the Bucks, the Bearded One has been ruled out for tonight’s Barclays Center follow-up.
Harden’s right hamstring kept him out of 21 regular-season games, and his is one of the dozens of injuries that have been a feature—and, more likely than not, a consequence—of the NBA’s COVID-cramped season. All told, the quick turnaround between the unprecedented 2019-20 campaign and this season robbed NBA players of 60 days of recovery time.
As is the case with every sport that does not enjoy the NFL’s hegemonic imperturbability, market size can have a significant impact on the NBA’s postseason deliveries—especially when the league’s most recognizable player is in street clothes. At no point was this more apparent than during the 2019 NBA Finals, which was rocked by the double whammy of James failing to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2005 and the participation of the Toronto Raptors. Not only was the player responsible for delivering the bulk of the league’s more casual fans nowhere to be seen, but as the Eastern Conference rep hailed from Canada, they didn’t have a stateside media market to call their own.
With an average draw of 15.1 million viewers on ABC, the six-game Raptors-Warriors showdown was the least-watched NBA Finals in a decade. In light of last year’s pandemic-delayed championship series, which averaged 7.45 million viewers during an October run that included two head-to-head battles with NBC’s Sunday Night Football, the Toronto-Golden State ratings no longer seem all that underwhelming.
ABC has a chance to at least get back to those 2019 levels, provided it’s fortunate enough to be gifted a six- or seven-game Nets title tilt, preferably one that pits Brooklyn against the Clippers. Together, the New York City and Los Angles markets are home to just shy of 12 million TV homes, accounting for 11% of the U.S. audience base. From a sheer ratings standpoint, a far knottier draw would pair off the Jazz and Bucks, two eminently watchable, enormously entertaining teams whose combined home markets account for 1.79 million TV homes, or fewer than 2% of the nation’s total.
However the rest of the postseason shakes out, ratings-watchers should resist the urge to suggest that a failure to return to the heights of the Cavs-Warriors quadrennial will erode the NBA’s market value. The league’s current $24 billion rights deal with Disney and Turner Sports expires in 2025, and if you believe for a moment that Adam Silver won’t negotiate at least a 150% premium, we’ve got a rusty eyesore on Flatbush Ave. to sell you.
In the near term, ABC/ESPN and TNT aren’t exactly going to lose any sleep over the 2021 postseason; barring an unlikely run of sweeps, the networks are on pace to split some $500 million in playoff ad sales revenue, while ABC should add another quarter-billion-dollars to the Disney stack in the event of a six-game Finals.