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The last time live NBA season action was on view, LeBron James was getting a second-straight “King James” crown as his Miami Heat became back-to-back champions, as a happy ABC reaped the benefits of the Heat’s seven-game battle with the San Antonio Spurs. That seventh and final game drew 26.3 million viewers on June 20, the second-biggest audience ever for an NBA game on ABC.
And the wealth was shared all last year. Across the league’s national TV partners, the NBA had its second-best audience for a full season, behind 2010- 11 (the 2011-12 season was reduced by almost two months by a labor dispute). TNT’s 52 broadcasts in 2012-13 averaged just over 2 million viewers each; ESPN averaged 1.8 million viewers for its 77 games; and ABC’s 15-game slate averaged 4.7 million.
Entering its 30th straight year of coverage, TNT opens the season with a doubleheader Oct. 29, preceded by a live pregame show from New York’s Flatiron Plaza. The opening-night doubleheader will feature James and the Heat hosting the Chicago Bulls, followed by the Los Angeles Lakers taking on the L.A. Clippers. Coverage will also include the Heat’s championship ring ceremony. TNT also has a doubleheader two days later, on Halloween night.
The Heat-Bulls game features the highly anticipated return of Chicago star Derrick Rose, who sat out all of last season with a knee injury. Since the Bulls’ biggest star and the 2011 league MVP sat out longer than the average recovery time, the move was met with controversy from some NBA corners. “If [Rose] stays healthy and [the Bulls] win, I think the fans will let it go,” said TNT analyst Reggie Miller during the network’s conference call to preview the season. “He’s still young.”
Why This MattersThe return of NBA action is always welcomed by the league's partners, which know the value of live sports programming very well.
Fellow analyst Steve Kerr shared that sentiment. “I think the fans are going to be so excited to see [Rose] back.”
NBA TV airs its first game on Oct. 30 with the new-look Brooklyn Nets taking on the Cleveland Cavaliers followed by the Lakers again, this time facing the Golden State Warriors. The network will air six games over seven nights during opening week.
ESPN begins its coverage Nov. 1 with the Heat and Nets followed by the Western Conference champ San Antonio Spurs against the Lakers (making that three national TV games in the first week for the Lakers, who are without the injured Kobe Bryant).
Third Time’s a Charm?
When ESPN does tip off on Friday, it will feature a new lineup on its NBA Countdown pregame show for the third consecutive season. Out are Michael Wilbon—who transitions to a more reporting role— and Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who left the network earlier this month.
Replacing them are former Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins and SportsCenter anchor Sage Steele, giving the show its first new host in several years. Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons and analyst Jalen Rose return.
“[Sage] has a proven track record hosting our NBA coverage and, on Countdown, she’ll help facilitate insightful discussion amongst her new teammates Doug Collins, Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons,” said John Wildhack, ESPN executive VP of production.
No doubt, the league’s board of governors voting to change the format of the NBA Finals beginning next spring will prompt some of that discussion.
Instead of the 2-3-2 format (the team with the better regular-season record gets first two games at home, followed by the other team getting the next three) which had been used since 1985, next spring’s Finals will move to a 2-2-1-1-1 format, which is used in the earlier rounds of the playoffs.
“With improvements in team air travel and technology, the reasons the 2-3-2 format made sense for us in the past largely do not exist anymore, so creating consistency became the priority,” said Rod Thorn, the league’s president of basketball operations.
The change adds an extra day between Games 6 and 7, which would put a potential Game 7 on a TVunfriendly Friday night under the current schedule.
NBA TV’s Slam Dunk
The league’s own network continued to set ratings records last year, as NBA TV’s 98-game schedule averaged 336,000 viewers, the channel’s mostwatched full regular season, and a 33% jump from the 253,000 per game in the 2010-11 full season.
“I think there are a lot of important things [to continue that momentum],” said Christina Miller, senior VP and GM of NBA Digital. “Most of them are speaking to what we know is important to our fans.” Miller says that NBA TV is committed to delivering access that fans “can’t get anywhere else,” stressing the 24/7, 365-days nature of sports.
“That has been key to our success, as well as these layered experiences,” Miller said. “Wherever that experience happens, we think of it all holistically.”
This season, NBA TV will also return the fan-favorite all-access series Inside Stuff, which originally ran from 1990-2005. The new version will be hosted by Grant Hill and Atlanta sports radio personality Kristen Ledlow.
“You talk to any basketball fan about [the sport] and everyone always remembers Inside Stuff very fondly,” says Miller. “The time was right; we’re doing more original programming than ever before.”
Miller says the new version of Inside Stuff will retain some of the original segments while incorporating social media and other new elements.
The 30-minute program will also feature in-depth interviews and will run weekly, with 26 episodes during the season and several special editions interspersed throughout for major events such as All-Star Weekend and the Finals.