The National Basketball Association playoffs were kind to cable but clearly disappointing for the league's broadcast partner, ABC.
Through six games, the NBA Finals between the New Jersey Nets and San Antonio Spurs averaged 9.9 million viewers for ABC, according to Nielsen Media Research. That's down 37% from last year's Nets and Los Angeles Lakers final on NBC, which averaged 15.7 million viewers (considered low at the time), making it the smallest audience ever for a Finals on broadcast.
ABC's best marks for the 2003 Finals came from June 15's deciding Game 6, which attracted 11.6 million viewers.
But the sky isn't falling, ABC said. "It's just the first year of a six-year deal," said ABC Sports spokesman Mark Mandel.
The network said ratings for the Finals were up 63% over the previous year's programming. But, clearly, said Horizon Media's research chief Brad Adgate, "if [ABC] had their first choice of matchups, New Jersey and San Antonio would not have been it."
San Antonio is a small-market team, and New Jersey, despite having played in the Finals two years straight, shares the New York market with the New York Knicks. Bigger markets or more flamboyant stars would likely have meant higher ratings.
Some evidence: An early-round playoff game on TNT featuring the star-studded Lakers and Spurs lured 7.6 million viewers to cable.
The low ratings likely hurt ABC's ad-sales estimates. "We will develop a plan to satisfy advertisers," ABC Sports and ESPN ad sales chief Ed Erhardt said in a statement, which suggests the networks will have to do some make-goods.
An ABC Sports spokesperson said the network was "aggressive in our projections" and missed the Lakers and a stronger draw in New York. ABC also slated slightly earlier tipoff times.
The network shouldn't be overly alarmed, said Rob Simmelkjaer, vice president of sister network ESPN. "The NBA is too good a product to have ratings in long-term decline," he said, adding that ABC hasn't aired the NBA since the early 1970s.
On cable, playoff ratings were robust. Clearly, the cable audience is small compared with broadcast, but, in the cable universe, the NBA was a star performer. TNT carried 44 playoff games, averaging 3.4 million viewers. TNT's playoff ratings were up 27% from last season, making TNT the top-rated cable network in May by a wide margin.
"All signs point to us making money in this new NBA deal," said Turner Sports President David Levy.
Under the six-year, $4.6 billion deal, TNT is said to be kicking in $2.2 billion and ABC/ ESPN $2.4 billion. The deal gave TNT, which has been airing the NBA for 18 seasons, more than 20 additional playoff games this season, including the marquee Western Conference Finals, which averaged 5.3 million viewers through six games.
On ESPN, the audience was smaller but still strong. The sports network hasn't carried the NBA in more than a decade. For 20 postseason contests, ESPN averaged 2.6 million viewers, up 262% from the same time slots in 2002. In contrast, so far in June, ESPN's prime time audience is closer to 900,000 viewers.
ESPN's postseason jewel, the Eastern Conference Finals, produced an average 3.3 million viewers.