What Do Falling TV Ratings Mean for the NBA?

NBA television ratings overall are down since last year but, according to commissioner Adam Silver, nobody at the league is concerned.

It might just be big talk, but a closer look at viewers’ shifting consumption patterns shows that there may indeed be little cause for alarm. At least not for now.

While media technology advances, so too does the age of the NBA’s biggest superstar, LeBron James. Viewers change how they watch far more often than the league negotiates new media licensing deals—the very deals that cause salary caps to rise.

International growth of the sport, increasing parity in the conferences’ performances and other factors on the court make broadcast scheduling a more complicated task. So where is it all now, and is there need for change?

More Than One Way to Watch

The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand wrote Jan. 17 that ratings for Turner broadcasting’s TNT network were a startling 22% below last year’s at this time. ESPN’s ratings were down by 5%.

Silver’s response, reported by Joe Vardon of The Athletic, was “There’s certainly no one at Turner or the NBA that is concerned about it.”

If not, why not?

Jan 17, 2019; London, ENG; NBA commissioner Adam Silver gives a pre game press conference before the game between the New York Knicks and Washington Wizards at The O2 Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Flynn-USA TODAY Sports

For one, although the ratings are below last season’s record-setting highs, they’re trending 4% above the season before that (and slowly improving since the bad start). Seven teams are actually enjoying increases in TV ratings since last year: Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat, Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns and (of course) the newly Lebron-ful Los Angeles Lakers.

Further, digital viewership is growing. Fast. And that’s particularly good news for Turner and the NBA.

Digital viewership for TNT is up 117% (compared to 55% for ABC and 30% for ESPN). In addition to owning TNT (and Bleacher Report), Turner powers other NBA media services, including NBA TV, NBA.com and, most importantly, the NBA League Pass subscription service.

While 275 regular season games will be nationally televised this season—18 on ABC, 66 TNT, 84 ESPN and 107 NBA TV—all 1,260 games are viewable via NBA League Pass. Subscribers may choose to stream games digitally on a wide variety of devices or purchase through their cable provider.

League Pass is available in over 200 countries, and the variety of subscription options continues to expand. As of December, fans can buy as much as full-access to every game for every team with an in-arena stream ($124.99 per year) or as little as one quarter of a single game ($1.99).

The NBA will not disclose exactly how many LP subscribers there are. However, league representatives will say that after hitting record highs in 2017-18, global subscriptions are up again, 21% over last year.

Although these promising figures seem to indicate the NBA’s popularity is not at-risk, ratings do matter. The league’s $24 billion media licensing deal was the main reason the NBA salary cap jumped sky high a few seasons ago. That pact ends in 2025.

League representatives would not provide any detailed breakdown of that “$24 billion deal”—no indication of how much is tied to digital and how much to television, or how much is tied to one brand or another. When a new deal is struck years from now, media economics may have shifted again enough that the Thursday night TNT television ratings matter far less than some consumption factor that’s yet to be invented. Then again…they might not have.

Viewership Factors

So is there something the league and their media partners are doing wrong? Could they increase ratings by choosing to televise different matchups? Would it be better to give teams more equal representation on national television, or does it make sense for a few teams to get a dozen games on TNT while others get none?

According to league representatives, decisions are becoming less about teams’ market size and more about storylines, rivalries, competitive balance…and Lebron. Always Lebron.

Feb 5, 2019; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) watches the Indiana Pacers shoot a free throw during the first quarter at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Yet, these decisions become less straightforward when you introduce factors like Lebron’s move to the West, Lebron’s increasing age, the league’s international growth and increasing parity in the teams’ and conferences’ performance.

So let’s take Lebron first: The dip in TV views is largely attributed to Lebron’s move to the Western conference.

East coast fans’ bedtimes discourage them from watching late games, and the Lakers have the most nationally televised games—43 in all, including NBA TV. Opening night did not include the Lakers (Lebron), which also is presumed to have caused a big hit to TNT. James’ recent injury could not have helped either.

How big of a draw is he still at age 34? Two record-setting games this season starred King James: His “return to Cleveland” (Lakers versus Cleveland Cavaliers, Nov. 21) was ESPN’s most-watched regular season game since 2015. The Christmas Day matchup versus the Golden State Warriors, with 10.2 million viewers, was the most viewed primetime Christmas Day game ever—doubling last year’s Houston Rockets vs Oklahoma City Thunder contest.

His greatness continues to pull a crowd to a screen, and ratings rely upon that.

It is also worth noting that national coverage is strongly biased to Western conference teams right now. Combining just TNT, ABC and ESPN, 61.1% of the games include Western Conference teams. Overall there are more East-West match-ups (46) than East-vs-East games (36), but West-vs-West far outrun both (72). This is all because the biggest stars and the best teams are in the West.

That probably remains true, but perhaps the gap is closing.

As of game time Feb. 4, the East’s top five teams have better records than West’s top five. The East’s win percentage versus Western Conference teams is 0.42% (121-165, brought down mostly by the horrible New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls).

So, very roughly, the Eastern to West ratio is 4:6 on national appearances and 4:6 on wins against one another. At a conference level, although the balance is still in the West’s favor, the league might be striking it right.

On an individual team basis, however, the disparity in national exposure can be quite stark. There are four Eastern Conference All-Stars—Kemba Walker, Blake Griffin, Nikola Vucevic and D’Angelo Russell (injury replacement for Victor Oladipo)—whose teams combine for zero games on TNT, zero games on ABC, seven on ESPN, and 17 on NBA TV. That’s a grand total of 24 compared to the 43 for the Lakers, a team that isn’t even in the playoff picture right now.

It’s rather a marvel that Walker became an All-Star Starter when he had the fewest appearances of them all (1 on ESPN, 3 on NBA TV).

The rationale is that Walker and the Charlotte Hornets, Russell and the Brooklyn Nets, etc. do not have as much “national interest.” However, it’s hard to build up national interest when nobody sees you play.

In fairness to the league, they had little reason to expect the Nets would be sixth in the East this season. In the past, they have responded to the rises of several successful teams. The Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz were hardly known by the casual fan until recently. Yet, as those teams’ have improved on the court, then so did their attention and ratings.

Jan 27, 2019; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) dunks as Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George (13) looks on during the second half at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Oklahoma City won 118-112. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Those three teams are particularly intriguing cases because each is boosted by having an international superstar at the core of their roster: The Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Jazz’s Rudy Gobert and the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic make an impact on viewership both at home and abroad.

For example, while international League Pass viewers are up 26 percent overall and total watch time has risen 16%, fans abroad have taken particular interest in the exploits of Nuggets Serbian first-time All-Star Jokic and Slovenian rookie phenom Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks. International unique viewers are up by 40% for Denver and 31% for Dallas, while international watch time is up almost 70% for Denver and 81% for Dallas.

It isn’t just Serbians and Slovenians who are excited about these teams, either. Any non-American player draws extra interest abroad.

The highest number of international League Pass subscribers are currently from Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Philippines and Mexico.

So if you’re tired of watching the NBAonTNT team bloviate about Lonzo Ball for the zillionth time, this is some of the reason why. But if you’re worried that the NBA is in trouble, don’t.

You could rightly say that they’ve temporarily relied too heavily on the success and health of Lebron James, but the sky certainly isn’t falling because of it.