Busy Offseason Has Fans, Sponsors Eager For NBA Tip-Off

The National Basketball Association tips off a new season on Tuesday, Oct. 22, and because of unprecedented player movement, a new rookie star and a wide-open championship race, the networks expect higher ratings and revenues.

No. 1 draft pick Zion Williamson is among the players creating excitement for the new NBA season.

No. 1 draft pick Zion Williamson is among the players creating excitement for the new NBA season.

Star players, including Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis, have switched teams; the long-dominant Golden State Warriors are no longer favorites; and the athleticism of Zion Williamson, the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick, is putting the New Orleans Pelicans on the map and in the national games televised by The Walt Disney Co.’s ABC and ESPN and AT&T’s TNT.

Sports remains the bright spot in the linear TV world. Ratings for the National Football League are up so far this season, and media buyers have been getting money down early on the NBA, pushing prices up for ESPN’s five-game Christmas hoopstravaganza and the playoffs.

The U.S. ad market doesn’t appear to be affected by the league’s problems with China, which has pulled NBA games from TV because of a Twitter post supporting Hong Kong protesters by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.

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Last year’s big NBA offseason news of LeBron James moving west to the Los Angeles Lakers didn’t work out so well. Ratings dropped for early East Coast games, James missed games because of injury and the Lakers missed the playoffs. For the regular season, ESPN ratings were flat and TNT was down 12%.

Revenue Up Despite Off Year

Despite the ratings dip, regular-season ad revenues for ABC, ESPN, TNT and NBA TV rose 3% to $695.7 million, according to iSpot.tv. The playoffs generated another $829.3 million, up 12%.

This season, “the NBA marketplace is strong,” said Madhavi Tadikonda, senior vice president and group director, investment, at media agency Canvas Worldwide, whose clients include NBA official sponsor Kia.

The NBA attracts a young audience that’s hard to find in the linear space, Tadikonda said. It also has a cool cachet that gives brands permission to do fun stuff, she said.

Kia has a multiyear deal for NBA spots, which is holding down price increases for the automaker, Tadikonda said. While Kia bought most of the commercial inventory it needed in the upfront, other clients looking to buy NBA spots now are facing challenges because of high sellout levels.

“For opening week and basically throughout the fourth quarter, we are sold out,” Jon Diament, Turner Sports executive VP, said. Sales are pacing about 20% ahead of last year.

“The ad market for the NBA has never been hotter, just due to the fact that advertisers thought this season was going to be amazing for the league because of all the trades,” Diament said.

Most of Turner’s biggest NBA sponsors have stayed in place, with NBA Tip-Off and Opening Week presented by Autotrader, halftime sponsored by American Express and State Farm presenting the NBA on TNT after opening week.

Potentially having two strong teams in Los Angeles (the other being the Clippers) hasn’t hurt NBA ad sales to the movie studios, which helps set the league’s ad market, Diament said.

Other categories buying NBA ads from Turner include autos, food and beverages, quick-service restaurants and beer. Fashion brands, including sneaker companies, also buy time. There’s some interest from gaming companies such as FanDuel and at some point, when legal gambling gets closer to a national footprint, that category could be big, he said.

Turner is also working with AT&T ad-sales arm Xandr to use data to sell more targeted and addressable ads in DirecTV households. “We’re trying to become more sophisticated in what we offer our advertisers,” Diament said.

At Disney’s ABC and ESPN, the market is hot as well.

“We’re above 90% sold out for October, November and December,” Disney Ad Sales executive vice president of revenue and yield management Jim Minnich said. “For Christmas, it’s closer to 95%.”

Scatter is very strong for those five Christmas Day games, he added, with pricing up by high double-digits over upfront rates. “We’re getting pricing in scatter that’s very similar to the NBA playoffs,” Minnich added.

After Christmas, ABC will begin airing NBA games on Saturday night. “The top matchups are sitting in those windows,” he said. “We’re really excited.”

Some advertisers, seeing the strong scatter market, are already registering budgets to buy ads during the playoffs and finals, Minnich said.

This year, ESPN and Disney will carry the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals. While the East includes big markets Boston, Philadelphia and Brooklyn, those teams aren’t nearly as compelling as those in the Western Conference, where as many as six teams are seen as championship contenders. Despite that, Minnich said conference finals are pacing ahead of last year, when Disney had the West.

Strong ad categories include personal care and men’s grooming, insurance and auto aftermarket. Tech and the movie studios are also key categories.

Film companies like to do integrations with NBA games and Paramount Pictures has one coming up with Disney for its upcoming film Terminator: Dark Fate.

Disney has also signed up 25 new advertisers that haven’t been in the NBA before, including Bacardi, Target, Nature’s Bounty and Invisalign. Beyond beer, ESPN is seeing more liquor marketers signing up, especially those aiming for upscale consumers, Minnich said.

Like the NFL, the NBA has become a year-round sport, with the NBA Draft, Summer League, free agency and trades generating social conversation and TV and digital programming that Disney can sell ads against, the executive said.

The season kicks off for TNT in Los Angeles, with a doubleheader featuring Zion Williamson and the Pelicans playing the champion Toronto Raptors. In the nightcap, the L.A. Lakers take on the Clippers. The network’s Inside the NBA will be in L.A. for the opener and in San Francisco on Oct. 24, where the Clippers will play the Warriors in the new Chase Center.

For the fourth year, Turner will present the NBA on TNT American Express Road Show, which will originate in L.A. and feature musical act Halsey. There will be on-site activities, including a 5G demonstration from AT&T.

Disney’s season starts Wednesday (Oct. 23) with the Boston Celtics playing the Philadelphia 76ers, followed by the Denver Nuggets taking on the Portland Trailblazers. Disney’s first game featuring Zion Williamson occurs Friday (Oct. 25).

On Christmas Day, the ABC/ESPN lineup will be headlined by a game matching LeBron James’s Lakers, fortified by the addition of Anthony Davis, taking on the Clippers, which added NBA Finals most valuable player Kawhi Leonard and All-Star Paul George in the off season.

Rachel Nichols and ‘The Jump‘ will air ahead of ESPN-produced Saturday NBA telecasts on ABC. 

Rachel Nichols and ‘The Jump‘ will air ahead of ESPN-produced Saturday NBA telecasts on ABC. 

The Lakers-Clippers Game will air in primetime at 8 p.m. Eastern time and simulcast on ABC and ESPN.

During the season, the league has eliminated games starting at 10:30 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday nights. ESPN doubleheader games will consistently start at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. or 7:30 and 10. On Fridays, games will start mostly at 8 p.m. and 10:30, with a few 7 o’clock and 9:30 starts sprinkled in.

“We worked closely with the league to try to move some of those up for the fans,” ESPN vice president of production Mike Shiffman said. “With some of the stars on the coast, it’s good to be able to possibly see the entire game.”

New Bells and Whistles to Telecasts

In terms of production, ESPN has enhanced its graphics package and will feature a skycam at more regular-season games. Last year, the skycam, which provides a view of the court similar to the video game NBA 2K, was used mainly in the playoffs.

ESPN has revamped its pregame programming. The Jump, the studio show with Rachel Nichols originating from Los Angeles, will air before the Christmas games and before ABC’s Saturday games. Richard Jefferson, Jay Williams and Adrian Wojnarowski will also have bigger roles on NBA Countdown.

The network is also expanding online basketball show Hoop Streams, hosted by Cassidy Hubbarth with analyst and former player Kendrick Perkins. The show, available via the ESPN app, Twitter and YouTube, will originate on location more often this season, throughout the regular season and during the NBA Playoffs. Hoop Streams is available on the ESPN app, Twitter and YouTube.

During games, ESPN is also looking at second- screen opportunities, including focusing cameras on a particular player such as James or Williamson.

ESPN did that in some of Williamson’s college games. “We do not have a finalized plan, but we are working towards one,” Shiffman said.

This season will also see 107 games on NBA TV, including a new marquee game, dubbed NBA TV Center Court, on Tuesday nights. NBA TV is also expanding its studio shows, including The Warmup, which is presented by Ford.

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.