After a more normal regular National Basketball Association season that saw ratings rise 19%, ESPN is gearing up for the playoffs.
The postseason starts for ESPN Wednesday with a pair of play-in games. On Saturday, it will televise a quadruple header with three Round One games on ESPN and one on ABC.
“That’s going to be some long days but everyone is looking forward to it. It’s the countdown to the Finals,” Dave Roberts, who was named head of ESPN’s NBA event and studio programming in August, told Broadcasting+Cable “We’re ready. I can tell you that.”
During the regular season games on ABC, ESPN and TNT averaged 1.6 million viewers, the most since the 2018-19 season. The NBA also said global subscribers to NBA League Pass was up 30% from last season and NBA social media platform generated 13 billion video views, up 7%.
Under Roberts, ratings for ESPN's basketball studio shows are also up. NBA Today was up 36% and NBA Countdown was up 49% from last season.
Roberts said he role was to get everyone working at the games and in the studio on the same page and then getting out of the way.
“We reinvigorated NBA Countdown by adding some extremely talented individuals,’ he said, ticking off Mike Greenberg, Stephan A. Smith, Michael Wilbon and Jalen Rose.
Meanwhile, NBA Today, hosted by Malika Andrews, features “a cast of characters that are extremely connected in the league and they work extremely well together,” Roberts said. “Everyone was moving in the same direction and because of that, you had a very cohesive, highly impactful program.”
With COVID becoming less of an issue, games telecasts featured enthusiastic fans in the stands. “Fans across all sports have a healthy appetite for the return of live sports and we were in a good position to capitalize,” he said.
It also helped ESPN to have its personnel at the games instead of broadcasting remotely. “Naturally being right there in the arena makes a difference. We all had to adjust through the last couple of years and that brought the people who work on these shows even closer together.”
Roberts declined to tip his hand on whether the network would be introducing new production technology in the playoffs. “We’re not going to reinvent the wheel. We’re just going to let our storytellers document what happens,” he said, adding “We’re not going to do things the same way just because it’s easy. There’s no shortage of creativity and innovation, so stay tuned.”
This year’s playoffs are wide open, and any number of teams could wind up in the Eastern Conference Finals on ESPN and the Finals on ABC. “There are plenty of good teams in the playoffs right now and all of them have great stories,” he said.
These playoffs won’t have LeBron James, the aging Los Angeles Lakers star who was a regular in the NBA Finals for years and helped draw casual fans to watch games on TV.
This year’s postseason will be “an opportunity to showcase what the league is going to look like after LeBron. The league is in very good shape and that’s going to come through loud and clear through these playoffs.
Roberts added that ESPN’s NBA coverage goes beyond television, to the internet, social media and radio. “This is a multi-platform comprehensive effort that frankly is second to none.
“The regular season was a pretty exciting adventure for all of us on both the studio side and the event side,” Roberts said. “We’re excited about what we accomplished in the regular season. We’re looking forward to more compelling games, the best execution in the studio, the best execution in game broadcasts and hopefully it will pay off with record ratings.” ■
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.
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