Why The NBA's TV Ratings Have Taken Off This Year
A five-month work stoppage looked to doom the NBA’s positive TV ratings momentum. Turns out that was as wrong as the teams that cut Jeremy Lin.
By Tim Baysinger -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/20/2012 12:01:00 AM
Note to all sports leagues or players’ unions that want to threaten the other side that a work stoppage will kill all momentum for a league: We have some bad news. It’s called the National Basketball Association.
After a 2010-11 season that bounced back from LeBron James’ ridiculous “Decision” to build strong television ratings momentum, the league and players teamed up to commit the fragrant foul of a work stoppage that appeared to slam-dunk all that goodwill down fans’ throats. All NBA coverage in the offseason was about bickering between millionaires, not exactly what the average American wants to hear as the economy flounders.
The two sides finally got on the same page after five months and a shortened, 66-game season (down from the usual 82) tipped off Dec. 25. And what has happened ever since has been nothing short of a Christmas miracle for the league and its television partners: The ratings increases have shockingly picked up right where they left off, and then some.
Over last year’s corresponding coverage, the NBA’s national television ratings are up 21% on ESPN, 24% on TNT and 18% on ABC. The news is just as good at the local level, with a 19% bump for NBA contests across all regional sports networks. And even the NBA’s own cable network is seeing a bounce, with ratings up 57% on NBA TV, which has seen an increase of more than 3.3 million households, the largest growth of any cable network since the start of the year.
Even NBA commissioner David Stern admitted he was surprised at the league’s ability to quickly put the lockout behind it. “It’s what we hoped for, but had no reason to expect,” Stern told B&C. “I think our fans are giving us the benefit of the doubt.”
Executives from both ESPN and Turner shared in the commissioner’s sentiment.
David Levy, president, sales, distribution and sports for TNT owner Turner Broadcasting, said that while he was con" dent fans would return eventually, he wasn’t sure how quickly it would happen. “We always knew there was [great] strength in the brand,” said Levy. “What I didn’t really know was how the fans would react and would there be any backlash from the lockout.”
“I think anytime you have a situation like that, you’re not sure to what level things will carry over,” said Norby Williamson, ESPN executive VP, programming & acquisitions.
And the eye-popping TV numbers are not just about a New York Knicks guard capturing national attention. Most of these ratings jumps happened long before you had ever heard the name Jeremy Lin.
While assigning cause and effect to television ratings is about as easy as predicting the winner of any given game, there are no shortage of factors bouncing the right way this year for the NBA.
Bright Lights in Big Cities
Big markets move TV numbers, and the NBA is lousy with good teams and big stars in top television markets. With superstars like Chris Paul and slam-dunk champion Blake Griffin, the Clippers have now joined Kobe Bryant and the Lakers to give Los Angeles two huge draws for the first time in, well, seemingly ever. “It gives us another marquee franchise,” said Williamson. “It gives you another story line in a major market.”
At presstime, the upstart Clippers had a better record than the Lakers and were also making the biggest move in the TV ratings. The Clippers have played in two of the three highest-rated games this season on ESPN, and three of NBA TV’s highest-rated games ever. Locally, Clippers games are up 154% on Prime Ticket, L.A.’s regional sports net— the top increase in the league. “There is a compelling reason to watch them every night,” said Jeff Krolik, executive VP, Fox Sports Regional Networks. “They have been a great story for us.”
And in the Big Apple, thanks in no small part to “Linsanity”, the Knicks have become a national draw (more so than a local one, perhaps, given the current MSG Network–Time Warner Cable spat). And with great teams and/or players in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Dallas and Miami, there is big-time basketball in many big-time markets.
No Rest For the Weary, Or the Fans
While slamming 66 games into roughly 120 days is not easy on NBA players (especially the older ones), coaches or team athletic trainers trying to keep the guys healthy, it is great for the fans. Teams are playing more games per week than usual, so fans don’t have to wait long to see their team, or perhaps check in on a hot team or player they have heard about. And the TV partners see bene! ts to having so many games packed together; it makes for very few boring nights in the league.
“Every single night [there is] a star-studded game that has national appeal,” said Levy.
Yet it’s no secret that in cramming so many games into so few weeks, as well as a mad dash to start the season to preserve as many games as they could, the quality of the play has suffered.
“This season has proven you need training camps. You need practice. And you need rest. And there’s not enough of any of that this year,” TNT analyst Steve Kerr said during a conference call promoting the network’s All-Star Game coverage. “We are seeing games that are spectacular, and then some duds where there is nothing in the tank.”
But according to the ratings, fans don’t seem to mind. And Stern is bullish about the teams’ ability to handle the tightened schedule over the course of the campaign. “Our teams are adapting,” he said. “They have altered some of their training techniques and nutritional approaches.”
The Kids Are All Right
Stern noted that the emergence of young star players such as Grif! n in Los Angeles, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City and Derrick Rose in Chicago have shot new life into the league as aging legends like L.A.’s Bryant, Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki and Boston’s Kevin Garnett enter the twilight of their careers. “I think our fans are tuning in to see a literal galaxy of stars,” Stern said.
Durant and Westbook play in one of the league’s smallest markets, yet the Thunder boasts a strong national following. “When Oklahoma City is playing well, the fact that it’s one of the league’s smallest markets is irrelevant,” said Stern.
The NBA’s ratings surge is not just on the national level, as teams across the league are experiencing huge local ratings increases. Making some of the biggest gains are the Minnesota Timberwolves, whose ratings have jumped 141% on Fox Sports North, no doubt buoyed by the exciting play of flashy Spanish import Ricky Rubio. “It’s not that complicated. A team starts to become compelling and puts a good product out there on the floor,” said FSRN’s Krolik. “People are really interested.”
Fox Sports Regional Networks provide coverage for 17 of the NBA’s 30 teams, including the Orlando Magic. While the Magic’s ratings are up 75% on Fox Sports Florida, the team faces the impending question of star Dwight Howard’s future. Krolik understands that the loss of free agent-to-be Howard would no doubt negatively affect the team’s ratings, but said “we’re partners with these teams, and we’re with them for the long-term.”
A Very Merry Christmas
One of the by-products of a delayed start to the season was the ability of the league to use Christmas Day—annually one of its biggest ratings days—as the launching pad for the season, instead of the usual Tuesday night in late October.
But Levy doesn’t believe that starting on a more marquee day had too much to do with it, noting the last season’s opener was the highest-rated ever for TNT. “This is the fourth year in a row that we’ve had doubledigit ratings increases in the regular season,” said Levy. ESPN’s Williamson added that “in a perfect world, we like that late October-early November launch,” noting that the network missed the opportunity to fully preview the season due to the rushed start.
However, it’s hard to argue that starting the season on Christmas didn’t have a positive effect; not having games in October and November means not having to compete with the NFL during two of its busiest months. “There may have been some issue with fans feeling deprived,” said Stern. “Once they were able to satisfy themselves on Christmas Day, they only wanted more.”
The NBA’s presence in the digital space, while not directly responsible for bringing in more viewers, has kept them more engaged. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, which serves as sort of an online sports bar, have made it easier for fans to engage with each other as well as players.
“Living in that space has to increase fan affinity for the NBA,” said Williamson, whose ESPN boasts apps like ScoreCenter and WatchESPN that make it easier for fans to stay engaged. “They are very tech-savvy— there is an insatiable appetite for news from around the NBA.”
The league has been often credited as being on forefront of technology and using its digital platforms to supplement its TV product. “[Stern] understands that you’ve got to ‘fish where the fish are,’” said Levy.
The commissioner is very appreciative of the fans for coming back so quickly. “Despite all the rhetoric back-and-forth,” the fans saw that “a certain reset was needed,” he said. Added Williamson: “I think most fans right now would say, ‘What lockout?’”
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