Star players, popular teams and close games are adding up to huge ratings for the the NBA playoffs.
With baseball experiencing double-digit ratings declines for last year’s World Series games and with the always-popular NFL still months away, TNT and ESPN are reporting their biggest ever pro basketball numbers.
And ABC’s primetime ratings for Saturday’s nail-biter between the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets yielded 7.2 million viewers and a 2.9 rating/9 share among adults 18-49, more than doubling the nearest competition. It was ABC’s best Saturday-night ratings performance in five months.
So why are NBA broadcasters shooting such a high percentage right now?
"It has to do with matchups, the size of the cities involved, and it has to do most importantly with number of games played in given series and how dramatic it is," says Neal Pilson, a former CBS Sports executive turned sports-media pundit.
Following Michael Jordan’s second retirement from the Chicago Bulls in 1998, NBA TV ratings turned cold for a while, bottoming out in 2007, with viewership tumbling 27 percent for a championship round featuring the mid-market San Antonio Spurs sweeping the then-overmatched Cleveland Cavaliers.
But then came the resurgence of traditionally popular teams like the Boston Celtics, the L.A. Lakers and the Chicago Bulls. Throw in charismatic young stars like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwight Howard, and some of the most competitive playoff series in at least a decade, and the NBA is hot again.
An NBA broadcast partner for the last 25 years, TNT’s playoff coverage is up 13% over last year, averaging a 2.7 household rating over the first 38 games.
Through the first three games of the 2009 NBA Eastern Conference Finals featuring the Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic, TNT is averaging about 7.7 million viewers, up 33 percent over last year’s Western Conference Finals pitting the Spurs against the Lakers.
For TNT, the series — which is pitting endorsement-laden stars James and Howard against each other — is only the latest success story for TNT this season.
Last month, the cable channel had its best ratings ever for a first round series thanks to a matchup featuring the defending-champion Celtics and up-and-coming Bulls. Not only did this dramatic series go a full seven games, it featured a record seven overtime periods being played in the first six contests before Boston finally pulled away in the finale.
The series generated a 14 percent uptick in total viewers for TNT, compared to its first-round coverage in 2008, with nearly 3.4 million people tuning in on average. Game seven, meanwhile was the best rated cable program of 2009 — at the time, before another pro hoops game topped it — for adults 25-54 and men 25-54.
ESPN, meanwhile, is tallying up its own benchmarks. Last week’s game-one Western Conference Finals matchup between the Lakers and the Nuggets was watched by more than 5.6 million viewers, making it the channel’s top-rated hoops game ever — a benchmark that lasted 48 hours, until the series’ game-two contest tallied 5.7 million viewers.
Of course, like all hot streaks, this one could be coming to an end. Although they could never admit it publicly, officials at all three networks have been over-the-moon regarding a possible matchup between the league’s biggest stars, the Lakers’ Bryant and the Cavaliers’ James.
However, with Orlando pushing the Cavs to the brink of elimination Tuesday, James’ participation in the championship round looks like a longshot. The Lakers and Bryant, meanwhile, are deadlocked 2-2 in their best-of-seven series with the Nuggets.