October 6, 2022

Sports on TV: NBA Finals viewership unimpressive, but culture wars aren’t the culprit

Read Time:8 Minute, 40 Second


Like clockwork, the NBA Finals’ TV numbers became culture war fodder – this time before they were even widely released.

Without naming names – you can Google it – a prominent right-wing news site published an editorial on Friday trolling the NBA for “horrible” ratings and honking about how the wildly popular cable series “Yellowstone” on Paramount Network had better numbers.

Unsurprisingly, the numbers were wrong by about 3 million, because it was incomplete early data. ESPN and the league warned reporters that the numbers being cited for Golden State-Boston viewership were not an accurate representation of how many people watched. And they were right.

Game 1 of the Celtics-Warriors finals averaged 11.9 million combined viewers on Thursday for ABC (11.4 million) and ESPN2 (501,000). That’s better than the opening finals games during the past two pandemic-roiled seasons but still the lowest since Game 1 of the Cavs-Spurs in 2007 averaged 9.21 million.

Sunday’s Game 2 averaged 11.91 million on the ABC-only broadcast. That’s the smallest Game 2 finals viewership since 8.55 million watched the San Antonio Spurs beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007.

Peak average for this year’s Game 1 was 12.96 million at 10:45 p.m. for Boston’s 120-108 win over the league’s TV ratings darlings. Sunday’s Game 2 hit 14.1 million at 9:45 p.m. for Golden State’s 107-88 rout to even the series.

This year’s Game 1 and 2 audience numbers include out-of-home viewing, such as people watching at sports bars and other people’s homes. OOH wasn’t baked into pre-2020 TV viewership metrics, which means those broadcasts could have up to 10 percent more audience than reported.

It’s no secret that the league’s audience numbers have declined for years, but so has the rest of television. Even the road-grading TV powerhouse that is the NFL saw some declines during the pandemic.

Not only are the league’s raw eyeball totals down, but so are the actual ratings – the metric that expresses as a percentage how many households were tuned into the game. Game 1 this year had a 6.4 rating nationally, and a 6.2 for Game 2. Those ratings topped the 2020-21 finals but are the lowest since the 2007 Spurs’ sweep of the Cavs (6.3 rating for Game 1 and 5.6 for Game 2, per Sports Media Watch’s database).

As I’ve written before, all of this probably requires a recalibration of expectations for audience totals while the TV industry sorts itself out. The viewership for Games 1-2 was lower than most expected — particularly after regular-season recovery and strong early-round playoff viewership — but the league still won all the key advertiser demographics that ultimately matter.

“They are excellent numbers by the diminished standards of TV today,” said Jon Lewis, who has crunched ratings at Sports Media Watch since 2006.

While it may be hip in some quarters to bash the NBA and its players for public expressions against racism and inequality – how many of those Twitter critics were regular NBA viewers, one has to wonder – and for treading lightly around their lucrative business relationships with authoritarian China, but the reality is that sea changes in the TV industry itself are the primary culprit in eyeball declines.

Sure, some universal things always drive finals ratings: the teams and star players involved. Storylines. Tip-off times. Competition on other channels. Quality of play. Blowout versus nail-biter. Sweep versus seven games. Playing in traditional calendar slots. Full stands. All that stuff still matters, especially talent.

“We have not really seen the kind of compelling basketball that would be overly attractive to someone who is busy and doesn’t want to sit down and invest two hours of time when they can get the highlights of after the fact,” Lewis said.

On top of that, people are just not watching TV like they once did. The proliferation of TV options accounts for some of that, including the rise of streaming services. Cord-cutting already was siphoning 10s of millions of U.S. households from the pay-TV ecosystem. The pandemic accelerated that. We learned after about a month or two into the pandemic, people opted to do other things than sit in front of the television every night, and sports and major events moved out of their normal season saw huge declines.

There are about 80 million U.S. pay-TV subscribers today, which is roughly 14 million fewer than in pre-pandemic 2019, per information provided by the league, and the number of people using television (known as PUT in TV industry lingo) is down 26 percent today versus the period for the 2019 finals.

Here’s how COVID-19 and other factors affected finals viewership: Last year’s Bucks-Suns Game 1 averaged 8.56 million and 2020’s Lakers-Heat Game 1 averaged 7.58 million.

The averages certainly are a big yikes, but there’s no evidence that sharp declines were fueled by millions of fans pissed about LeBron and others demanding equality amid police shootings and such.

Game 1 in 2019 (Raptors-Warriors) averaged 13.38 million.

With the finals again in June instead of July (like last year) or September-October (2020), the NBA is back to its normal schedule. That’s led to some audience recovery. We’ll see if that continues, or if these current numbers are something of a new normal.

Ultimately, the NBA’s audience numbers exist for the networks to sell advertising and create a lineup schedule. They’re not intended as a proxy for why people watch or don’t watch and lack the rigor and intention of scientific polling.

The finals easily dominate what’s on TV, and the network and brands know that. The broadcast landscape, thanks to the aforementioned consumer viewing habit changes, has evolved for everything on TV. Many younger fans don’t consume any games by sitting in front of a two-hour-plus linear TV broadcast, which is why you see sports leagues getting in fantasy, NFTs, gambling, video games, social media and anywhere else they think they can find and monetize fandom.

This isn’t meant as a defense of the NBA and its TV audiences. The league and its billionaire owners and millionaire players can carry their own water. But the recreational bad-faith regurgitation of preliminary data in the name of ideological trolling is worth calling out. Lewis called out use of the preliminary raw data and said anyone using such numbers to make a wider political point “does not know what they’re talking about and should not be viewed as an authority in any fashion.

“The sports rating culture war is a tremendous waste of time for people that don’t think or breathe politics 24/7,” Lewis said. “The reality for the NBA is, if it was all culture war stuff, it would be fixable as never touching on social issues ever again.”

While some fans may be turned off by such displays, and there really aren’t that many since the Bubble era of 2020, it was never a significant number, Lewis said.

The league has bigger problems: It needs fresh blood, he said. Elite talent tends to occur in cyclical waves in the NBA, and today we’re seeing the tail end of the LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant era.

“There is clearly Warriors fatigue. The interest in LeBron is not what it was now that he’s on the Lakers,” Lewis said. Those names still draw, just not like they used to. The NBA has experienced this before, such as when Michael Jordan’s career wound down and he eventually retired as a Washington Wizard in 2003, he added.

In the end, the audience figures, while of interest to fans, partisans, and media reporters, are ultimately the concern of those spending the huge sums around the games. The NBA is shopping for a new set of TV deals for after the 2024 season and expects to get a significant bump from the $24 billion it’s getting now in total from Disney (owner of ABC and ESPN) and Turner – with $75 billion the reported goal for the next round of deals.

No one knows if the league will get that much but it will definitely get a substantial raise, probably much to the ire of the committed “get work, go broke” and “shut up and dribble” crowds that cannot seem to “stick to sports.”

“There is a silent majority with no interest in any of this. They’re too busy for the culture war nonsense. They might be too busy for sports, too,” Lewis said.

This is the dumb tribalized world we live in now. Feel free to call me a hack in the comments.

Anyway, Game 3 airs at 9 p.m. Wednesday and Game 4 follows at 9 p.m. Friday. All the finals telecasts are on ABC. After taking the weekend off, the finals return Monday for a 9 p.m. Game 5 tip-off, with Game 6, if necessary, next Thursday.

If the series reaches a Game 7, and the network and league certainly want exactly that, it would be an 8 p.m. game on June 19, which is a Sunday and Father’s Day.

(Photo: Jim Davis / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)





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