LeBron James is sitting out the NBA playoffs for only the fourth time since he joined the league as the first overall pick in the 2003 draft, and while his absence will be much remarked-upon over the course of the spring tournament, superstars like Steph Curry and Kevin Durant should go a long way toward glossing over the no-show.
The NBA this season put up its strongest TV numbers since the 2018-19 campaign, averaging 1.6 million viewers across ABC, ESPN and TNT. That marked a 19% improvement versus the delayed 2020-21 season, which tipped off just before Christmas Day and wrapped up the week after Mother’s Day. ABC leveraged its broadcast reach to average 3.07 million viewers per game, good for an 11% boost versus the year-ago 2.77 million, while ESPN’s NBA slate was up 19% to 1.4 million viewers per game, and TNT jumped 16% to about the same number of average impressions.
Much of these ratings gains were driven by Golden State’s Lazarus act. After a two-year stretch of catastrophic injuries, the revived Warriors have been a gold mine for Disney and Turner Sports, appearing in three of the five most-watched 2021-22 NBA games and six of the top 10. Despite missing 18 games, including a dozen down the home stretch, 34-year-old point guard Steph Curry put together the fifth-most productive season of his career, averaging 25.5 points per game while sinking a league-high 285 three-pointers.
If Golden State is to make it back to the Finals after a two-year layoff, Curry will need all the help he can get from Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. On March 14, the trio played together for the first time since the 2019 NBA Finals, bringing their all-time record as a threesome to 367-114 (.763). Thompson has played in 32 outings since his two-year setback, averaging 20.4 points per game, which marks the third-best scoring performance for a player rebounding from such a protracted layoff. The all-time leader in that metric is Michael Jordan, who in 2001-22 put up 22.9 PPG with the Wizards in the wake of his second retirement from the Bulls.
Ahead of Saturday night’s opener against the Nuggets, Vegas books have Phoenix as a +260 favorite to represent the Western Conference in the Finals, with Golden State a step behind the Suns at +890. And while a long run for the Warriors represents the NBA’s best chance at keeping the ratings momentum rolling, the playoff picture is replete with big draws. The Eastern Conference is particularly well-represented this year, as the Nets and Bucks are among the season’s top five national TV draws.
As much as the East is a toss-up, Brooklyn will give No. 2 seed Boston everything it can handle in their upcoming series. Kevin Durant this season put up 29.9 PPG, and in limited service (see: vaccine mandate, NYC) Kyrie Irving contributed 27.4. Should the Nets get past the Celtics—and there’s talk that the enigmatic Ben Simmons may finally suit up for Brooklyn for the first time since a multi-player trade saw him get shipped out of Philly—they’re likely to face Giannis Antetokounmpo and the rest of the defending champs in the second round.
The further Brooklyn can advance, the higher the ratings will climb, and the absolute best-case scenario for the networks and their advertisers is a Nets-Warriors Final. Durant & Co. rep the nation’s largest media market, and Golden State’s Bay Area stomping grounds are a not-so-shabby No. 6. Together, the two markets boast 10.1 million TV households, a tally which accounts for more than 8% of the nation’s overall base. (Naturally, duration is another contributing factor; the last time an NBA Finals went the full seven, back in 2016, the deciding frame averaged 31.0 million viewers.)
Of course, we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit. In the near term, the promise of what Curry and Durant are about to get up to on the court has advertisers looking to bring their ad spend back to pre-pandemic levels. For marketers looking to reach the NBA’s enviably young fan base—the league boasts a median viewer age of 41.9 years, making its TV audience a fountain of youth compared to a broadcast primetime viewership that’s pushing 60—the next two months are a must-buy. (Advertisers on the lookout for younger female consumers also may want to commit some dollars to the NBA, as viewership among women rose 23% in 2021-22. Women now make up approximately one-third of the league’s audience.)
That said, opportunities to get in on the action are starting to dry up. “Even before the big Christmas games, it was obvious that Curry was driving up the ratings,” said one national TV buyer. “As soon as there was no question that [Golden State] would make the playoffs, the April and May inventory started flying off the shelf. If you haven’t already locked in your NBA spots, you’re probably going to have to settle for something a lot older, like baseball, or something untested—something like the USFL that’ll come cheap and skew young but won’t get you your impressions.”
To that end, Turner Sports is already anticipating a monster playoff run. Demand for its NBA playoff inventory is elevated, and the average in-game unit costs are up double-digit percentages versus the year-ago period. According to a Turner Sports ad sales rep, about 120 marketers have signed on for TNT’s playoff coverage, which will wrap with the AT&T-sponsored Western Conference Finals.
Presenting sponsor of the Turner Sports’ NBA playoffs coverage is Google Pixel. Longtime TNT backers American Express and Kia will return as sponsors of the halftime show and postgame coverage, respectively. Perennial big spenders like State Farm, Taco Bell and Geico will be highly visible across all NBA postseason telecasts.
If the NBA still has a way to go before it starts delivering true pre-pandemic ratings stats (the regular-season deliveries were down 14%, or just over 500,000 viewers per game, compared to 2018-19), it’s worth noting that overall TV usage was roughly 28% higher then. That said, the early Nielsen data is encouraging. The first night of the play-in tournament averaged 2.6 million viewers on TNT, which marked a 33% increase versus the analogous night in 2021.
Given all the comps to the pre-pandemic era, perhaps the best way to judge the success of this year’s NBA playoffs will be to compare the final ad sales tally to that of three years ago. According to Standard Media Index data, the total haul for the 2019 postseason was just shy of $730 million, more than a third of which ($250.7 million) was generated by ABC’s coverage of the six-game Finals. The average unit cost for the Warriors-Raptors series, which averaged 14.9 million viewers, was $671,697 per 30-second spot, which is about what it costs to advertise in an NFL Wild Card Game.