The NBA over the last two seasons has lost a quarter of its TV audience, and while it will be some time before any year-to-year comparisons can be made without an intervening asterisk, the shrinking ratings make for diminished expectations as the league heads into the playoffs.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the 168 regular-season NBA games on ABC, ESPN and TNT in 2020-21 averaged 1.32 million viewers, down 25% compared to the last pre-pandemic campaign two years earlier. In 2018-19, which brought an end to the four-year ratings stimulus effort that was the Warriors-Cavs rivalry, the three networks averaged 1.75 million viewers.
While this season’s declines weren’t as steep when compared to the patchwork 2019-20 effort—the year-over-year drop was 14%—it is, perhaps, more instructive to analyze the 2020-21 deliveries within the context of what amounts to the most recent undisrupted season. That said, the headwinds are inescapable regardless of how the data is framed; as with every other sport that leans heavily on linear TV, the NBA is at the mercy of an ecosystem that’s been battered by secular declines.
During the 35 weeks of the 2020-21 broadcast season, which officially concluded yesterday, overall TV usage was down 10% compared to the year-ago period, for a net loss of 8.64 million viewers per night. The fall-off in tube time was particularly evident at the Big Four networks, which saw their aggregate primetime deliveries plunge 22% in the span of a single year. As such, it should come as little surprise that ABC’s suite of NBA games took a greater hit than the two cable packages; with an average draw of 2.67 million viewers per game, the network’s live hoops coverage was off 10% versus last season’s 2.96 million and down 26% versus 2018-19 (3.61 million viewers).
For advertisers, the NBA’s shrinking broadcast audience coincides with an even more vertiginous drop-off among the members of the core target demo. Two years ago, ABC’s NBA coverage averaged 1.47 million adults 18-49 per game, a turnout that shrunk to 1.16 million in 2019-20 and fell all the way to 993,000 fans in the under-50 set this season. In other words, nearly one-third (32%) of ABC’s dollar demo has wandered off in the course of two years.
If there’s a silver lining to any of this, it’s wrapped around the supply-and-demand dynamic that underpins the TV ad market. As long as demand remains flat-to-up, the diminishment in transactional impressions will almost always lead to a further increase in the price of the commercial inventory. Ratings performance and average unit costs aren’t plotted on a direct-relationship graph, and the key advantage of live sports is that it’s pretty much the last programming genre in which advertising impressions are made at scale. In other words, only seven of the 74 scripted broadcast shows that aired in primetime this season managed to serve up as many demographically relevant commercial impressions as did ABC’s NBA games, and they were all significantly pricier buys.
The NBA ratings crush is also happening as the cable, satellite and telco-TV operators are struggling to retain paying subscribers. Per the earnings reports of the major pay-TV players, approximately 1.9 million video subs cut the cord in the first quarter of this year, bringing the reach of the traditional wireline/DBS ecosystem down below 72 million viewers—quite a tumble from the 101.2 million U.S. households that made up the multichannel universe in 2015. (For what it’s worth, virtual MVPDs like Hulu+ Live and Fubo have helped stop the bleeding a bit, accounting for 6.76 million additional video subs as of March 31.)
The slowly collapsing pay-TV model is doing ESPN and TNT no favors, although Bristol this season seems to have got the worst of it. ESPN’s live NBA telecasts averaged 1.19 million viewers, off 10% from the reconstituted 2019-20 season and down 25% versus 2018-19. TNT, meanwhile, averaged 1.22 million viewers, for a year-over-year loss of 7%, and faced a two-year slide of 18%.
Now, as much as streaming deliveries to some extent would seem to be offsetting the TV losses, the digital impressions are still negligible in the greater scheme of things. Linear TV accounts for around 95% of the NBA’s overall audience, so while the league boasts the youngest fan base of any major sport, the non-traditional deliveries aren’t doing much to make up for the attrition on the broadcast/cable side.
Much of this has to do with the ratings methodology; because streaming views are tabulated via the same duration-dependent formula as are TV impressions, the usage patterns of younger fans tend to dilute the overall impact of their usage. Essentially, younger viewers tend to dip in and out of the games, streaming just a few minutes here and there, which means that even if a massive number are following the action online, they’re also not putting in enough time with the games to leave behind much of a trace. Arguably, this is more of a measurement problem than anything else, and in time the currency that underpins the streaming space will adapt beyond the artificial constraints of the TV marketplace.
For all that, the NBA and its media partners have to abide by the terms laid down by the immediate present, which are clear-cut. If shrinking TV usage weren’t already sufficiently migrainous, the league’s reliance on a single personality has some network execs scrambling for the Percocet. So much depends on LeBron James’ gimpy right ankle, which over the course of the regular season cost the Lakers star 23 games and effectively relegated the defending champs to the ignominy of the play-in round. The Lakers this season were the most ubiquitous team, playing in 33 national windows, and the highest-rated franchise. An early exit would spell doom for any lingering shot at a postseason ratings rally.
Or perhaps not, if LeBron’s old rivals in the Bay Area have anything to say about it. Steph Curry and the Warriors nearly topped the Lakers in the chippy play-in battle—after a rough start, L.A. won 103-100 on James’ winning three to advance to a first-round series against Phoenix—and a back-from-the-dead Golden State could very well infuse this year’s playoffs with some of that old 2014-18 magic, especially if they square off with L.A. again in a later round.
Meanwhile, the slept-on Eastern Conference has both New York teams suited up, and if Brooklyn looks like a safe bet to still be playing in July, the prospect of a deep Knicks run is cause for premature celebration. Trouble is, no one really has the faintest idea how well New York would draw if they can manage to keep their season alive; for one thing, they only appeared in eight national games, and none of these was available over-the-air. For another, the last time the Knicks made the playoffs, the nightly broadcast TV audience was 48% bigger than it is today.
For all the uncertainty about the playoffs and sports TV in general, advertisers aren’t showing any signs of trepidation. Sales of in-game inventory have been brisk, as brands from the NBA’s endemic categories (fast food, auto, insurance, beer/liquor, apparel) have been flooding the zone. The strength of the scatter market, in which pricing is at a 30% premium to the rates established in last year’s upfront, makes the postseason an expensive proposition for relative newcomers, although heavy spenders that were derailed by the pandemic and are looking to re-activate with the NBA aren’t being asked to pay through the nose for the privilege.
If these reactivations may not be as apparent as the return of fans to the NBA arenas, the home viewers soon will begin to notice that something is different about this year’s ad breaks. Remember movie teasers and travel ads? Like the Knicks, they’re back.