The NBA All-Star Game is the latest sports-TV franchise to take its ratings lumps, as Sunday’s cable telecast marked the lowest turnout in the history of the event.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the overstuffed Team LeBron vs. Team Durant scrimmage averaged 5.94 million viewers on TNT and TBS, down 18% versus the year-ago 7.28 million, and a 2.4 rating in the dollar demo, which works out to 3.05 million adults 18-49. That marked a 23% drop compared to the 2020 All-Star Game, which served up 3.97 million members of the under-50 set.
The final ratings include the deliveries for the Slam Dunk Contest, which was shifted from its usual Saturday night perch to halftime of Sunday’s game. For what it’s worth, the record high for an NBA All-Star Game was set by NBC in 1993, when a field that included the likes of Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley battled to an overtime finish in front of 22.9 million viewers.
Devoid of the hype and hullaballoo that usually precedes the midseason exhibition and tossed together at a moment’s notice, this year’s All-Star Game had a lot working against it. While LeBron James racked up his fourth consecutive victory as a captain in the post-East vs. West era, the face of the NBA was all but playing under protest. A few weeks ago, when the league announced it would go forward with a truncated version of the All-Star weekend, a frustrated James told reporters, “I’ll be there physically, if not mentally.”
A number of other high-profile players, including two-time All-Star captain Giannis Antetokounmpo and two-time NBA champ Kawhi Leonard, had expressed similar sentiments leading up to Sunday’s game.
On a more reassuring note, the All-Star Game’s audience composition was predictably apple-cheeked, as befits the youngest-skewing sports league this side of Major League Soccer. Per Nielsen, members of the 18-49 set accounted for 51% of TNT/TBS’s overall deliveries, a remarkable hit rate for primetime TV programming. By comparison, members of the all-important demo rarely account for so much as 25% of the total impressions served up by even the highest-rated broadcast shows.
Speaking of which, the massive turnout for CBS’s special presentation of Oprah with Meghan and Harry likely had very little impact on the All-Star Game ratings, as the Venn diagram of royal watchers and pro hoops boosters looks like an unopened packet of Hostess Sno Balls®. (The only sovereign NBA fans recognize is King James.) While the two-hour interview averaged a staggering 17.8 million viewers, making it the 19th most-watched broadcast of 2021 thus far, the CBS audience was superannuated. Case in point: Overall viewership for the castle intrigue tripled that of the Turner Sports presentation, but CBS’s deliveries of adults 50 and up (13.5 rating) was seven times the size of the TNT/TBS chaff (1.9).
Meanwhile, despite Oprah’s 11.9 million viewer advantage, the All-Star Game still managed to draw nearly a quarter-million (240,000) more people in the 18-34 demo. For brands like Kia, T-Mobile, Nike, McDonald’s and Amazon Prime looking to connect with the NBA’s young, free-spending audience, those ratios made for a sound investment.
As we hurtle toward the anniversary of the NBA’s suspension of the 2020 season—after Utah center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus on March 11 of last year, the league took what amounted to a 20-week hiatus before resuming play in the Orlando bubble—ratings disruptions have been the norm across the sports calendar. Among the major events that suffered all-time ratings lows during Year One include: the Masters, World Series, NBA Finals, Daytona 500 and all three Triple Crown thoroughbred races.
Much of this shrinkage may be explained away by the unprecedented impact the pandemic has had on scheduling. After a four-month sports drought, parched fans were asked to drink from a firehose of live TV options, a supersaturation that led to multiple occasions in which the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball were competing for eyeballs in the same time slots. But it’s impossible to ignore the overall TV usage declines. Since the 2020-21 broadcast season began in September, the Big Four networks have seen their primetime audiences shrink 18%, as 3.7 million fewer people are tuning in each night compared to the year-ago period.
Naturally, sports isn’t bearing the ratings burden alone, as contracting TV usage and shifting habits in media consumption are taking their toll across the entire ad-supported universe. Just two weeks ago, the Golden Globes Awards plummeted 62% to an all-time low turnout of 6.91 million viewers, and at present, only six scripted broadcast series are averaging a 1.0 rating or better. In other words, even the highest-rated dramas are only reaching between 1% and 1.2% of the 129.4 million members of the target demo.
TV usage rates tend to bottom out during the warm weather months, and if vaccination projections from the White House are anything to go by, it’s going to be difficult for advertisers to reach just about anyone who’s spent the last year in sort of modified lockdown. The myriad delights and distractions of a return to however you care to define “normalcy”—New York is going to be like V-J Day on designer drugs—wouldn’t seem to bode well for sports ratings, at least not in the near term.