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Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, Warriors put NBA in strong media rights position

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Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies drives to the basket to shoot against the Golden State Warriors within the second half of Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals of the NBA Playoffs at Chase Center on May 07, 2022 in San Francisco, California.

Thearon W. Henderson | Getty Images

The NBA is in a powerful position because it bounces back from the pandemic and gears up for its next media rights cycle in the subsequent few years. Playoff viewership increased without much participation from teams in the large Recent York and Los Angeles markets. The league’s biggest star, LeBron James, is not within the playoffs, either.

Audiences are tuning in to observe the Golden State Warriors, who’ve returned to title contention after missing the playoffs last yr. The Boston Celtics are drawing big numbers, too, because the storied franchise looks so as to add an 18th title banner to its arena rafters. Electric young stars Ja Morant and Luka Doncic have also helped the NBA’s playoff rankings recovery after two down years brought on by the pandemic.  

“The NBA isn’t any longer depending on one or two teams,” said longtime sports media executive Neal Pilson. “They’re not depending on major market teams. That is evidence of strength.”

The NBA’s conference finals began earlier this week on Warner Bros. Discovery property Turner Sports and Disney-owned ABC and ESPN networks. Through the early conference finals matchups, postseason games are averaging 3.7 million viewers on the networks, up 14% compared to 2021.

Greater than 6 million watched game one in every of the 2022 Western Conference Finals between the Warriors and Dallas Mavericks. And ESPN also reported roughly 6 million viewers watched game one and two of the Celtics-Miami Heat series. The NBA uses metrics from measurement company Nielsen for its viewership stats.

The NBA’s $24 billion take care of ESPN and Turner ends after the 2024-25 campaign. Speculation about whether the NBA will embrace streaming services in the subsequent round of deals.

The league can have a powerful hand to play largely due to its young stars.

Pilson, a former president at CBS Sports, pointed to the NBA’s team balance and the promotion of young stars as a reason fans are showing interest. The Memphis Grizzlies’ Morant and Dallas’ Doncic put the NBA in a “healthy situation” for a lucrative rights deal, he said. 

The recognition of the 22-year-old Morant helped lead the Memphis Grizzlies to its most-watched playoff series ever. The Grizzlies series against the Warriors averaged 5.9 million viewers over six games. That included 7.7 million viewers who watched game one – the highest-rated game within the playoffs thus far. 

Morant missed the ultimate three games of the series as a consequence of injury. But he’s expected to return next season, so expect national networks to feature more Grizzlies games. 

Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks handles the ball during Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Finals on May 18, 2022 at Chase Center in San Francisco, California.

Noah Graham | NBA | Getty Images

Doncic, 23, led the Mavericks to a game seven win over the top-seeded Phoenix Suns on Sunday. That game averaged 6.3 million viewers and was the fifth-most watched game within the playoffs this yr.

“You possibly can put Memphis and Dallas on and get an audience,” said Pilson, adding that the NBA is “not depending on the Lakers and positively not depending on the Knicks.”

The league will likely be tested through the NBA Finals in June, though.

The NBA Finals averaged 9.9 million viewers in 2021, when the Milwaukee Bucks and their superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, defeated the Suns. That is up from a mean of seven.5 million viewers for the 2020 NBA Finals, which featured James and the Lakers playing in front of an empty arena within the Orlando Covid bubble. But it surely’s also way down in comparison with the 15.1 million viewers who watched the 2019 NBA Finals featuring Warriors and Toronto Raptors. 

Of the remaining teams, a Heat-Mavs final may not draw top viewership like a Celtics-Warriors, or Celtics-Mavs series. But Pilson said the remaining star players, including Warriors superstar Stephen Curry, would still be enough to attract a considerable audience. The profile of Jayson Tatum, the Celtics’ 24-year-old top star, has also grown this postseason.

“There are more NBA teams now that may support the Finals by way of athletes and rankings than there have been 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s beachfront property – sports is driving the tv economy. It’s why rights fees are expensive, and sponsors must pay top dollar.”

Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart (36) is fouled by Miami Heat forward P.J. Tucker (17) through the first quarter. The Miami Heat host the Boston Celtics during game 2 within the NBA Eastern Conference Finals at FTX Arena in Miami, FL on May 19, 2022.

Matthew J. Lee | Boston Globe | Getty Images

On the NBA’s board of governors meeting April in Recent York, league commissioner Adam Silver said it’s “premature” to contemplate adding recent partners in the subsequent rights deal, he did say the NBA was closely monitoring the rights marketplace – particularly as tech behemoth Apple is now spending to indicate sports on its Apple TV+ service. 

“The discussions we’re having now have more to do with predictions and where the media market goes,” said Silver. “I feel we’ll proceed to see a morphing of numerous these rights which have historically been on traditional services to streaming services. And albeit, that is where the consumers are going, too.”

But how the NBA packages those rights is up within the air. Apple showed its interest in getting within the sports media business when it struck a deal this spring to land MLB rights. Amazon is already in business with the NBA, because it streams WNBA games.

“I feel that is the direction media is getting into this country,” said Silver. “People want personalization. They need customization.” 

Streaming platforms, he added, offer sports fans “flexibility and attributes that perhaps you do not find through conventional, satellite and cable delivery.”

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