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NBA Tips Off to Huge Ratings on TNT

Viewer average of 3.7 million is pro hoops’ best opening number in 26 years.

Continuing its recent hot shooting streak with television audiences, the NBA debuted to its highest opening-night ratings in 26 years of coverage by TNT.

Tuesday night’s double-header on TNT, which featured the Boston Celtics beating LeBron James’ Cleveland Caveliers (with the newly added Shaquille O’Neal) and the Kobe Bryant-led Los Angeles Lakers trumping the L.A. Clippers, was watched by an average of 3.7 million viewers.

That’s the biggest opening-night pro basketball audience for the Time Warner-owned cable channel in the 26 years since it signed its first broadcast contract with the NBA – a span that includes the halcyon days of Michael Jordan’s playing career.

In fact, for TNT, that’s the biggest audience for an NBA doubleheader of any kind since January 1996, when the channel’s coverage was capped by Jordan’s Chicago Bulls beating the Lakers right after Earvin "Magic" Johnson returned from a five-year retirement.

For both TNT and the NBA, ratings bottomed out three years ago, with the not-so-glamorous, mid-market-situated San Antonio Spurs won their fourth championship in the last decade.

However, with Bryant putting media-capital-situated glamour team the Lakers back on top last season, and new stars like James emerging, pro hoops ratings have been incendiary over the last 12 months, with league broadcast partners TNT, ESPN and ABC all enjoying significant ratings upticks last season.

And based on Tuesday night’s doubleheader, which was up 43 percent over last year’s draw of 2.6 million viewers, ratings this season could be even better.