“I’m thinking there will be some improvement in the second half of the season,” sports media consultant Patrick Crakes says
The 2019-2020 NBA season was supposed to be a TV ratings slam dunk.
This season has seen a return to prominence for the Los Angeles Lakers, who feature the game’s most popular player in LeBron James, as well as a second team in L.A. worthy of championship talk. The reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, has put together another strong campaign and has led the Milwaukee Bucks to its best season (so far) in team history. And there are some of the most exciting players to grace the court now playing in today’s league.
However, the NBA’s TV ratings have been clanking off the back of the rim, falling double digits compared to last year. On the eve of the NBA’s All-Star break this weekend in Chicago, it’s time to ask the question: Can the NBA’s ratings rebound in the second half?
In true basketball fashion, TheWrap is going pick-up style. We’re laying out three reasons why the second half of the NBA season should bounce back, and three reasons why they could continue to heave bricks.
The case for a continued slump:
1. The Regular Season Doesn’t Matter (as Much)
One reason ratings could continue to slump is that teams have put less emphasis on the regular season — leading fans to do the same.
Teams are more focused on making it through the 82-game season in one piece, with their stars healthy and ready for the playoffs, than jockeying for position by winning one or two more games during the regular season. The practice of resting star players during the regular season — particularly during the second game of a back-to-back match-up — was made popular by the San Antonio Spurs nearly a decade ago. It’s since caught on league-wide, with several star players now sitting out for “load management” purposes, as it’s been dubbed.
While it may be a wise basketball decision, it’s not necessarily a wise business decision. Fans this year have, on multiple occasions, turned on national ESPN games… only to see a marquee player taking the night off. (However, the NBA pointed out to TheWrap that no players have sat out any nationally-televised games because of “load management.”)
“You have all these moments where you miss these stars,” Mo Dakhil, a contributor for Bleacher Report and The Athletic, said. “If you’re going to tune into a Clippers game, but Kawhi (Leonard) is sitting because it’s the second night of a back-to-back, or you turn on the Rockets and Russell Westbrook is sitting out, it can be frustrating.”
Dakhil said the inability for casual fans to assume their favorite players will play has led many to tune out during an otherwise “phenomenal” NBA season, where several teams look like potential champs. One solution could be reducing the length of the NBA season, putting more of a premium on each game. The NFL only plays a 17-week schedule, making each game feel like a mini-event.
“You’d get a better product on the floor if you shortened the season,” Dakhil said. “Guys wouldn’t skip back-to-backs because the games would have more value.”
That may be a smart fix — but it’s not coming this season.
2. The Warriors Are Still on Hiatus
The Golden State Warriors’ run over the last five years was the closest the NBA has ever come to replicating the 1990s-era Chicago Bulls: an NBA team that was appointment television, even if many fans tuned in to root against them.
Unfortunately, the Warriors aren’t up to that level this year. The team, despite moving into a fancy new arena in downtown San Francisco, own the league’s worst record at 12-43 as of Thursday morning. Injuries to stars like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have been the main culprit, transforming a star-laden roster into a group of players even the most die-hard fans would need to look up. Yet the Warriors have still been featured in many national TV games, while their local TV ratings have been sliced in half.
Simply put: The Warriors’ fall has wrecked the NBA’s ratings. And it won’t get any better, with the Warriors still featured in several national TV games coming up. Curry’s potential March return could help, but he’ll be playing for a team that’s been looking toward the off-season since November.
At the same time, the Brooklyn Nets play in the country’s biggest market but are essentially taking a gap year, with superstar forward Kevin Durant putting his debut on hold until next season. Add in the fact the New York Knicks are enduring another uninspiring season and the Chicago Bulls lack star power — and wins — and the league doesn’t have much ratings help on the horizon from its big-market teams.
3. NBA’s Core Audience Does Not Watch TV
Here’s something that will make every NBA TV executive lose sleep: This ratings fall may not be a product of just bad luck. It could be the new normal. The NBA courts the youngest audience of any major U.S. professional sports league, but it’s also the same audience that is shunning pay-TV subscriptions in favor of streaming.
But the NBA’s games, with the exception of out-of-market TV packages through NBA League Pass, are exclusively available on linear TV. For example, ESPN is not able to put any of its NBA inventory on its ESPN+ streaming service despite airing the majority of nationally televised games. The NBA’s current TV deals with ESPN and Turner are tied up through 2025, so it could be awhile before the league figures out a way to get more games on streaming, where its core audience lives.
Even NBA commissioner Adam Silver admitted his league is in a pickle when it comes to straddling that line between the old legacy model, where the NBA still gets $2.6 billion in rights fees every year, and catering toward its audience’s preferred viewing habits.
“Especially for the NBA, which is primarily a cable-satellite sport, that system is broken to a certain extent,” he said during Sports Business Journal’s Dealmakers in Sports conference in December. “It’s not just in terms of the loss of homes, but our young viewers, in particular, are tuning out cable, traditional cable.”
The case for ratings bouncing back:
1. No More NFL Competition
With apologies to the XFL, the NBA no longer has to compete for eyeballs and airtime with football, with the Super Bowl now in the rearview mirror. The league’s main exclusive national broadcast window is the Thursday night doubleheader on TNT, which for its first two months had to compete head-to-head with “Thursday Night Football.” The NBA couldn’t even get past half court.
“It’s clear that Q4 is now more competitive than ever regarding sports viewing,” said Patrick Crakes, a sports media analyst and former Fox Sports executive. “It may be that early season NBA ratings now face a permanent wall of expanded ‘must watch’ Q4 sports options, and as a result early season injuries and popular teams struggling at the start of a season can directly impact viewing much more than in the past.”
But now? The league has the sports spotlight to itself, save for a few weekends of March Madness. Baseball is just heading into spring training, with the first pitch of the 2020 season not being thrown until the end of March. Even then, baseball doesn’t post nearly the same threat to the NBA as the NFL, which will be in its own playoff stretch run by then.
The Lakers-Houston Rockets game on Feb. 6, TNT’s first Thursday post-Super Bowl, drew 2.26 million viewers — the network’s highest audience for a single game since the Lakers-Bucks matchup on Dec. 19, which was the first Thursday after Fox’s “TNF” schedule ended. TNT has had its top two games this year when it didn’t have to face off against the NFL.
“I’m thinking there will be some improvement in the second half of the season,” Crakes added.
2. The Rise of Zion
One of the main drags on the NBA’s TV ratings is finally turning the corner. Zion Williamson, the top overall draft pick and one of the most heralded prospects in years, didn’t make his NBA debut until January. He’s quickly become must-see TV. His 17-point outburst in the fourth quarter of his debut helped ESPN notch its best viewership for the season. (It would later top that for the Lakers’ first game following Kobe Bryant’s death.)
Williamson has lived up to those lofty expectations, scoring 20 points in seven of his first nine games and lifting the New Orleans Pelicans into playoff contention.
Along with Zion, the NBA’s national TV schedule is backloaded with games featuring both Los Angeles teams. A true inner-city rivalry between the Lakers and Clippers has developed, at least in the standings, with the Lakers holding the top record and the Clippers the third-best as of Wednesday.
Which brings us to…
3. The Regular Season Will Finally Get Interesting
The Milwaukee Bucks ran away with the Eastern Conference with the league-best record at 46-7, the Western Conference has played out as expected. As many as five different teams can arguably represent the conference in June’s NBA Finals.
The wide-open race in the West was one of the main reasons cited by TV execs for optimism for improving on last season’s ratings decline. That obviously didn’t materialize in the first half of the season, but with the playoff race ready to bloom, ESPN and Turner may finally be able to swat away those ratings losses.
“For the first half, the collapse of Golden State had a bigger impact on the casual viewer than first believed and star player movement hadn’t settled in yet. Toss in the loss of some key players early to injury and you explain some of the early season declines,” Crakes said. “Most of that should be worked out post All-Star Game, and, combined with a national network schedule that features lots of Lakers and Clippers, year-to-year viewing losses should stem.”