It’s been an extraordinary year for the entire NBA. The once-dormant Warriors have returned to the NBA Finals for the sixth time in eight seasons. The Celtics’ young core Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown did it for the first time. Nikola Jokic won his second straight MVP. However, according to a press release issued by the league and its television partners, no one seems to be prospering more than the league itself.
After two years of turbulent, questionable TV ratings, the NBA is back on its feet, and this month’s Golden State Boston Finals could be the climax. Every week seems to bring some new achievements. Game 7 of the Celtics-Heat series was the most watched division final in four years. More people have watched the first round of the playoffs on ESPN than any postseason game since 2014. The audience for the first playoff weekend was the largest since 2011. It was the most-watched regular season on TV since the 2018-19 season. Looking ahead, historic achievements are looming.
For the NBA, this season has been a powerful rebuttal to years of criticism that the league has lost not only viewers, but clients altogether. Some of the Defamation League mentioned declining TV ratings. After the Coalition embraced the 2020 Social Justice and Black Lives Matter movement, others used the numbers to make plausible arguments against the Coalition; often, these were lobbied by right-wing activists who were not interested in the Coalition’s success or failure, more Things need to be politicized so that there is another adversary. It’s getting harder to do that this season as the numbers skyrocket.
While the NBA could have a ratings win ahead of new media rights deal negotiations that begin in 2025, its return as the TV audience favorite this season is more complicated than its brisk numbers claim. These stories tell the story of a league that is back in shape but also benefits from new audience-counting tools and perhaps, at least in part, relies on the Bay Area’s reinvigorated stars and franchises. The NBA is back, but not at its peak of the past decade, and it needs some help.
There is no doubt that the NBA has come to life this season. It has new superstars in Luka Doncic, Ja Morant and Tatum; it has established players like Curry thriving; and others like Giannis Adeto Kumbo, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Kevin Durant, they’re in their prime. Even without LeBron James playing a full season, neither the Lakers nor the Knicks have made the playoffs, and they have playoff teams in five of the six top media markets and seven of the top 10. The league averaged 1.6 million viewers on its ESPN, ABC and TNT this season, the most since the 2018-19 average of 1.75 million, and a 19 percent increase from last season.
“TIt’s an undeniable reality,” said Ed Desser, a veteran media executive and former NBA TV president. “The reality is that the NBA is working. The content is powerful and engaging. “
But as good as the NBA has been this season, its success story can’t be told without the friendly backlash from Nielsen’s new method of gathering viewership. Since September 2020, Nielsen has included outdoor audiences as part of its statistics, which can account for the number of people watching in places like bars and restaurants.
That’s not always good for the web. Nielsen admits it underestimated its audience numbers last year, with one estimate putting it at nearly 400,000 viewers a night from May to December 2021. The company has since claimed to have fixed the issue. A Nielsen spokesman said outdoor viewing accounted for about 10 percent of viewers.
“The NBA has really bounced back in a real way, and it can’t just be attributed to Nielsen changing its approach to include outdoor ratings,” said Jon Lewis, founder of Sports Media Watch. “But I also think that when you talk about With the highest-rated playoffs since 2014, I think 2019 is probably still ahead of this year based on the numbers I’ve seen. But there wasn’t outdoor viewing at that point. I think it’s going to be different.”
As the league resumed its normal schedule, viewership soared. Orlando ended the 2019-20 season with a bubble without fans. The entire 2020-21 season did not go as planned, starting in December and ending in July.
These circumstances appear to be hurting NBA games as a consumer product and making them more difficult for fans who want to watch. On top of that, fans’ lives have been upended by the pandemic.
It’s all about ratings. The number of people watching the 2020 Finals is half what it was in 2019. The 2021 Finals had the second-lowest viewership of the past decade.
“Look at what’s happened in the past few years, and sports are not immune,” Deser said. “Playing the playoffs and the Finals in one place in a bubble isn’t nearly as compelling as the home crowd and the nature of the product these days. I think part of it is. I think part of it is people want the NBA playoffs in the spring Held, not summer or fall. There’s a certain rhythm to the sports industry. People are geared up for certain things at certain times…I think what we’re seeing is both a rebound to something closer to normal and based on what’s happened over the past few years pent up demand due to the situation.”
Desser argues that the NBA’s leap is the result of the league as a product itself, not an outdoor audience. He said there are now 10 million fewer cable TV households than a few years ago, making those TV numbers even more impressive as they face more and more cord-cutting.
There are signs that the NBA has returned to its baseline. A Google search for “NBA playoffs” this spring was almost on par with 2019 levels. Searches for “NBA” also rebounded.
The league also benefits from the Warriors’ return to title contention. The Golden State Warriors are the league’s highest-rated team locally for the sixth time in the past seven seasons. They have played in seven of the 12 most-watched games of the season. In 2019-20, there were only two Warriors games in the top 70 most-watched games.
It may not be a coincidence that NBA ratings have plummeted in the two seasons the Warriors missed the playoffs. Even before the pandemic suspended the season, they fell in 2019-20 — Curry only played five games that same season.
Maybe a healthy and successful Stephen Curry is the medicine the NBA needs. He’s thriving, just as rising stars are on the scene, creating a serendipitous timing for the league.
“The numbers we’ve seen this year dispel the notion that the numbers from the past two years are indicative of the popularity of the NBA,” Lewis said. “As opposed to the headwinds the league faces — all the other leagues face it. So to me, that’s what the preseason ratings this year show. They’re not saying the NBA is more popular than ever, Or the league is soaring to new heights. It shows to me that the league is definitely going back to where it was. And the rise of the outdoors means the kind of numbers you get in 2019 are going to have a bigger audience on top of them, It makes them look stronger than they really are.”
(Photo by Jordan Poole and Warriors fans: Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)