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LeBron goes west, NBA domestic TV audiences go south in 2018-19

Thanks to its partnership with Eurodata TV Worldwide, SportBusiness Consulting brings you a look at domestic television audiences for two of sports’ two biggest global properties, the NFL and the NBA.

Despite appearing to be at an-all time high in terms of general popularity, NBA domestic television audience ratings for the first half of the 2018-19 season are down across the board compared to the first half of the 2017-18 season. Games on Disney-owned pay-television broadcaster ESPN are down 6.4 per cent from the start of the 2017-18, while games on Turner’s pay-television channel TNT are down 16.1 per cent.

Some explanations for the decrease in audiences include:

  • League superstar LeBron James playing most of his games on the west coast and at a less convenient time. Since signing for the Los Angeles Lakers from the Cleveland Cavaliers in the summer, the league’s broadcast partners have been unable to exploit the popularity of the league’s biggest star in the primetime broadcast window for the majority of the country. Instead, most of his games take place after 10pm on the east coast, limiting the number of potential viewers.
  • Changing viewer habits/fewer people subscribing to pay-TV. As identified by NBA commissioner Adam Silver at the recent MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the league’s young fanbase intersects with the growing number of cord-cutters or cord-nevers who do not subscribe to pay-television or consume the league primarily via a live television broadcast. This theory is somewhat supported by the fact that in a number of cases audience shares have remained flat, which arguably illustrates this is the cause of viewers being lost.
  • The impact of bad teams in the number one and three television markets. Few games featuring either of the New York Knicks or Chicago Bulls have been broadcast nationally due to both teams having disastrous seasons. This could also lead to a general decrease in motivation for fans in those cities to watch other broadcast games.

Games broadcast by Disney

Disney has exploited its rights in the first half of the NBA season across both ESPN and its free-to-air network ABC. Most games have been shown by ESPN as double-headers on Wednesday and Friday nights and have a combined average audience of 1.61 million. Games on Wednesday nights have proved marginally more popular, with an average audience of 1.67 million (2.1 per cent share), compared to an average audience of 1.54 million (1.9 per cent share) on Fridays. Audiences on both nights are smaller than they were in 2017-18, when the average audience was 1.74 million (2 per cent share) on a Wednesday night, and 1.71 million (1.9 per cent share – the same as this season) on Fridays. ESPN’s most-watched game in the first half of the season was LeBron James’ return to Cleveland, which drew an average audience of 3.8 million (4.1 per cent share).

Disney has broadcast seven games on the ABC network, to an average audience of 3.3 million. Five of these games have been on Saturday nights and have averaged an audience of 3.33 million (four per cent share). These are often marquee games featuring some of the league’s best teams and players. Two games were shown on ABC on a Sunday afternoon, drawing an average audience of 3.22 million (4.5 per cent share).

Games broadcast by Turner

Turner Sports has seen a larger decline in audience for games on its TNT pay-television channel. As its games take place on Tuesday and Thursday nights (i.e. nights fans are less likely to stay up late), they may be more susceptible to Lebron James’ move to the west coast than Disney.

TNT shows most of its games as double-headers on Thursday nights following the highly-regarded Inside the NBA studio show. These games have attracted an audience of 1.51 million (1.9 per cent share) in 2018-19, down from 1.67 million (1.9 per cent share) in 2017-18.

Turner has broadcast a further 10 games on Tuesday nights; these have attracted an average audience of 1.75 million (2.1 per cent share). In 2017-18 the average audience for games shown by Turner on Tuesday nights was 2.45 million (2.8 per cent share).

Turner’s most-watched game in the first-half of the season – LeBron James’ regular season debut for the Los Angeles Lakers against the Portland Trail Blazers – had an average audience of 3.42 million (5.3 per cent share).