Say what you will about doomsday cultists, but they’re never lacking in the courage of their convictions. When the comet of the apocalypse streaks across the desert sky, they lace up their Nike Decades and avail themselves of the nearest pharmacological exit, leaving the rest of us to await our own far-less deliberate ends. In electing to ignore the dark portents of the cosmos, we reserve for ourselves a vast, if not infinite, allotment of time in which to do things like watch the NBA and NHL playoffs.
Sure beats the alternative.
If the conversation about the state of the cable bundle has devolved into one of those New Yorker cartoons in which an extravagantly bearded hermit takes to the streets with his homemade “THE END IS NEAR” sign, that’s largely a function of simple math. Since the first quarter of 2022, nearly 10% of all traditional pay-TV subscribers have parted ways with the bundle, dragging the overall base down to around 61.9 million households. At its peak in 2010, there were nearly 105 million bundled subs, and the latest bout of churn has reduced the industry’s footprint to just 50% of all U.S. TV homes.
These are the data points that send Wall Street analysts scrambling to the areas of their garages and basements which are dedicated to the manufacture of alarmist placards. And yet, in the face of all this seismic upheaval, the ratings for both the NBA and the NHL postseason tournaments are up considerably. The NBA is on pace for its best showing in a dozen years—this despite the fact that 34 of the 39 games played thus far were televised on basic cable—while the NHL’s playoff deliveries are 18% higher than they were in the first year of the new Disney/Warner Bros. Discovery deal.
And those NHL gains were all built on the back of cable. Of the 37 NHL playoff games that have aired in 2023, here’s how many were carried on a wide-reach broadcast network: One.
Through Tuesday night’s tripleheader, the NBA is averaging 3.62 million viewers across ESPN, TNT and ABC, which marks a 3% gain versus the year-ago period. While the league enjoyed a significant boost from Sunday afternoon’s Kings-Warriors thriller on ABC—with an average draw of 7.52 million viewers, Golden State’s 126-125 victory was the most-watched first-round game in 21 years—the NBA’s cable numbers are up 1%. Bear in mind that all of these gains have been made at a time when TV usage is down 11%. It’s almost as if sports fans are responsible for keeping the bundle from disintegrating altogether.
As much as the NHL doesn’t scare up NBA-grade TV deliveries, the 18% improvement from last year in its playoff numbers is commendable. Through Tuesday night’s action on ESPN and TBS, postseason hockey is averaging 772,114 viewers per game, which works out to a gain of nearly 120,000 fans in each TV window. And as is the case with the NBA, the NHL audience is like something out of an advertiser’s fever dream. Thus far, adults age 18-to-49 account for 45% of the NHL’s overall impressions, a demo share that skates circles around broadcast TV’s audience composition. Per Nielsen, a scant 15% of the people who’ve watched primetime entertainment programming on the Big Four networks during the 2022-23 season are members in good standing of the under-50 crowd.
While it’s foolhardy to try and assign causality to any aspect of human behavior (let alone one as irrational as fandom), perhaps the best thing the NHL has going for it is that every playoff game feels like that Jason Statham movie where he has to maintain a steady rush of adrenaline in order to counteract a deadly mob-administered poison. Only hockey’s nowhere near as dumb. Through the first 37 games, 11 (or 30%) have been settled in overtime, and two of those overstuffed outings required a second OT.
Actually, the hell with Statham—playoff hockey is basically like drinking a bathtub full of coffee and then challenging a lowland gorilla to a “Beat It”-style knife fight. Which is to say, it rules, but maybe make sure to keep a sublingual nitroglycerine tablet on hand before firing up the set, especially if you plan to watch the Kings-Oilers series. Five games, three OTs. Nurse!
But wait, there’s more—lots more. If the first-round NBA and NHL numbers have done their bit to put the lie to the notion that cable TV is about as lively as the mortifyingly under-attended party Peter Brady threw for himself after his Driscoll’s Toy Shop heroics (oh, just Google it), things are about to get livelier still in the coming weeks. For the NBA, the best-case scenario sees the Celtics taking on the Sixers in round two, while the Warriors and Lakers square off in the West. These matchups would round off the already-established Knicks(!)-Heat and Suns-Nuggets pairings, while facilitating the first postseason showdown between LeBron and Steph Curry since Game Four of the 2018 Finals.
In addition to stoking the embers of the historic King James-Golden State rivalry, this outcome would ensure second-round representation for five of the 10 largest U.S. media markets. As with all leagues structured around the best-of-seven format, the significance of series duration and market size are impossible to overstate. The more [games, denizens] the merrier. Even if the sky caves in and the Kings and Grizzlies advance, the NBA is still looking at five top 10 DMAs and another four teams repping the top 20. With 644,360 TV homes, No. 52 Memphis is the outlier here.
Another thing the NBA has going in its favor is that absolutely no one has any idea how the rest of this tournament will play out. Here’s a numerological oddity that comes along about as often as the foreboding Hale-Bopp comet: Should the second round proceed as mapped out in the previous two paragraphs, we’re looking at a first-ever roster of a No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7 and No. 8 seed. The +250 favorite heading into the playoffs, Milwaukee, and its league-best 58-24 record have gone fishin’. The Larry O’Brien Trophy is up for grabs, and uncertainty makes for good TV.
The NHL for its part could see as many as three of the Original Six teams punching their way to the second round, while two contenders repping the New York DMA are likely to advance. Odds also favor a strong showing from the Western Conference, where yet another freshly minted franchise is capturing hearts and minds (this time in Seattle), while major markets such as Los Angeles and Dallas are also in play. And while deep runs by Canadian franchises are always a mixed bag, given the lack of affiliation with any stateside markets, the outsized popularity of Edmonton’s Connor McDavid would likely compensate for such a representative imbalance should the Oilers get past L.A.
Of course, this sort of thing is true until it’s not; as much as a Toronto-Edmonton Stanley Cup Final would thrill the fine people who dwell north of the border, such a pairing would be absolute murder on WBD, which is set to air its first-ever NHL title series. Then again, if the Leafs advance past Tampa, the 65-win Bruins await. Maybe. We’ll see.
Doomsday preppers, stay thy hands. There’s life in the bundle yet.
(This article has been updated to correct a reference to a Michael Jackson song.)