This has been a remarkable yr across the NBA. The Warriors, once dormant, have returned to the NBA Finals for the sixth time in eight seasons. The Celtics have made it there for the primary time with their young nucleus of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Nikola Jokic won his second consecutive MVP. And yet, based on the press releases the league and its television partners have sent out, nobody appears to be flourishing greater than the league itself.
After two years of rocky, impugned TV rankings, the NBA is back riding a high, with this month’s Golden State-Boston Finals prone to function a crescendo. Every week seems to bring some latest accomplishment to tout. Game 7 of the Celtics-Heat series was the most-watched conference finals game in 4 years. More people watched the primary round of those playoffs on ESPN than any postseason since 2014. The primary playoff weekend had the most important audience since 2011. This was the most-viewed regular season on TV because the 2018-19 campaign. Wherever you look, historical accomplishments loom.
For the NBA, this season has been a convincing rebuttal to years of criticism that the league has lost not only viewers, but customers altogether. A few of those maligning the league cited dipping TV rankings. Others used those numbers to make specious and bad-faith arguments in regards to the league after its embrace of the social justice and Black Lives Matter movements of 2020; often those were lobbed by right-wing activists with little interest within the league’s failure or success and more in need of politicizing things in order to have one other opponent. That has been harder to do that season as numbers have shot up.
While the NBA can take a rankings victory lap ahead of negotiations for a latest media rights deal set to start in 2025, its return as a TV viewer favorite this season is more complex than its buoyant numbers might declare. Those tell the story of a league that got its groove back, but has also benefited from latest viewer counting tools and perhaps, not less than partially, its dependency on a rejuvenated star and franchise within the Bay Area. The NBA is back, but not all of the approach to its highs of last decade, and it needed some help.
There is no such thing as a doubt that the NBA has been revitalized this season. It has minted latest superstars in Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, and Tatum; it has old ones like Curry thriving; and others like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Kevin Durant which are of their primes. Even without LeBron James playing a full season or the Lakers and Knicks within the playoffs, they’d playoff teams in five of the six top media markets and 7 of the highest 10. The league averaged 1.6 million viewers across its ESPN, ABC, and TNT broadcasts this regular season, probably the most because it averaged 1.75 million in 2018-19 and up 19 percent on last season.
“There’s no denying the fact,” Ed Desser, a veteran media executive and former NBA Television president, said. “The fact is that the NBA is on a roll. The content is powerful and is charming.”
But pretty much as good because the NBA has been this season, its success story couldn’t be told without incorporating a friendly bounce from Nielsen’s latest method for collecting viewership numbers. Since September 2020, Nielsen has included out-of-home viewers as a part of its tallies, which might account for people watching, say, at bars and restaurants.
That hasn’t at all times been a boon to networks. Nielsen admitted that it undercounted viewers last yr, with one estimate saying it didn’t account for nearly 400,000 people every night from May to December of 2021. The corporate has since claimed to have fixed the difficulty. A spokesperson for Nielsen said that out-of-home viewing makes up for about 10 percent of the overall viewing audience.
“The NBA has definitely rebounded in a possible way that can’t just be attributed to Nielsen changing its methodology to incorporate out-of-home viewership,” said Jon Lewis, the founding father of Sports Media Watch. “But I also think that once you’re talking in regards to the most-watched postseason since 2014, I feel based on the numbers I’ve seen, 2019 was probably still ahead of this yr. But there was no out-of-home viewing back then. And I feel that makes a difference.”
Rankings have also boomed due to a return to the league’s normal calendar. The tip of 2019-20 was played in a bubble in Orlando with no fans. The whole 2020-21 season was off-schedule, starting in December and ending in July.
Those circumstances appeared to hurt NBA games as a consumer product and made them less accessible to fans who wanted to look at. On top of that, fans had their very own lives upended by the pandemic.
All of it made for gnarly viewership. Half as many individuals watched the 2020 Finals as they did in 2019. The 2021 Finals were the second-lowest-rated of the last decade.
“Take a look at what’s been happening the previous few years and sports will not be proof against that,” Desser said. “Playing the playoffs and the finals in a single location in a bubble is just not nearly as compelling as home crowds and the character of the product lately. I feel a part of it’s that. I feel a part of it’s people expect the NBA playoffs to be within the spring, not in the summertime or fall. There’s a certain type of cadence within the sports industry. Individuals are ready for particular things at particular times… I feel what we’re seeing is each a bounce back to something more closely resembling normalcy and a certain pent-up demand based on what has happened the last couple of years.”
Desser believes the NBA’s jump is a results of the league as a product itself, not the out-of-home viewers. He said there are 10 million fewer cable homes now than there have been several years ago, making these TV numbers more impressive because they’ve are available in the face of increased cord-cutting.
There are indicators that show the NBA has returned to its baseline. Google searches for “NBA playoffs” this spring have almost matched 2019 levels. Searches for “NBA” have shown a rebound as well.
The league has also benefited from the Warriors’ return to title contention. Golden State was the very best locally rated team within the league for the sixth time within the last seven seasons. They played in seven of the 12 most-watched games this season. In 2019-20, there have been just two Warriors games within the top-70 highest-rated games.
Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that NBA rankings dropped dramatically within the two seasons the Warriors missed the playoffs. They fell in 2019-20 even before the pandemic suspended the season — the identical season by which Curry played just five games.
Possibly a healthy and successful Steph Curry was the medication the NBA needed. That he’s booming just as latest stars have also come onto the scene has made for fortuitous timing for the league.
“The numbers that we’re seeing this yr put to rest the notion that the numbers of the past two years were a sign of the NBA’s popularity,” Lewis said. “Versus a sign of the adversarial conditions that the league was facing — all the opposite leagues were facing as well. So to me, that’s what this yr’s preseason rankings indicate. They don’t indicate that the NBA is more popular than ever, or the league is surging to latest heights. It indicates to me that the league is actually back to where it had been. And that the rise of out-of-home signifies that the type of numbers you bought in 2019 could have this extra audience on top of them that make them look a little bit bit more formidable than they’re.”
(Photo of Jordan Poole and Warriors fans: Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)