The National Basketball Association is looking at ways to address the lower ratings its games have been drawing this season.
At a press conference during All-Star Game weekend in Chicago, Commissioner Adam Silver also said he thought the league could play a role in breaking the stalemate that has left the Ascent regional sports network in Denver blacked out on Comcast since September.
Asked about this season’s double-digit drop in ratings for NBA games on TNT and ESPN, Silver pointed to short-terms issues and structural issues.
Short-term, the league has been hurt by injuries to key players on teams that were scheduled to appear frequently on national telecasts. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors have been out and prized rookie Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans has only just started to play.
“There's very little flexibility when we set our schedule now,” Silver said.
At the same time, the league’s ratings are hurt by the cord cutting that’s hurting cable TV, where most NBA games are telecast.
“It's well-known that on one hand we're celebrated by some because we have such a young fan base, but that young fan base is disconnecting from pay television in record numbers” Silver said.
Those young viewers are engaged with the NBA in social media he said. “but we haven't found a way to connect those young fans to our broadcast through whatever platform they're going to be delivered.”
Silver said the league was working with its media partners to fix the issue.
“I think it's a very solvable problem. Our two primary media partners, Disney and AT&T, are both very engaged in these issues,” he said, noting last both companies are looking to grow their direct-to-consumer streaming businesses.
“I'm super confident over time we'll work through it because there remains enormous interest our players and our game,” the Commissioner added.
Silver was also asked about the blackout of Altitude to Comcast subscribers. Altitude carries Denver Nugget basketball games and Colorado Avalanche hockey games in 10 states.
“I think it's a bad situation for everyone, and I'm incredibly sympathetic to those fans that live in Colorado and are unable to get those games,” Silver said.
“There's a lot happening right now transformationally in the media market, and I think that the RSNs are sort of resetting in terms of their business models. I think the teams are rethinking what the best ways are to distribute our games to reach the most number of fans,” he said.
“Coming out of All-Star, certainly [NBA Media head] Bill Koenig and others in the League Office will be redoubling their efforts to try to find a path forward here,” he said.
Silver also said he was hopeful NBA games would soon return to CCTV, the Chinese broadcaster. The games were pulled after Houston Rockets executive Darryl Morey in October tweeted in support of protesters in Hong Kong
He noted that the Chinese government is understandable pre-occupied with the Coronavirus crisis, making it hard to identify who to negotiate with. But he said “my sense is that there will be a return to normalcy fairly soon, but I can't say exactly when, when it comes to CCTV.”
Silver also said that reports that the China situation was costing the league billions were exaggerated. He put the figure at about $400 million, maybe less.
“I don't have any sense that there's any permanent damage to our business there, and as I've said before, we accept the consequences of our system and our values,” he said.
The NBA also announced that it was naming the Kia All-Star Game MVP award for the late Kobe Bryant, who was killed in a helicopter crash with his daughter and seven others,
“This trophy will be presented at the conclusion of tomorrow night's All-Star Game, and I know it will be especially meaningful to that player that wins the first Kobe Bryant MVP,” Silver said.
“So I'm sure there will be other honors as well, and as I mentioned, there are other things that we will be discussing with our board, the NBA board, when they meet in April to honor David. But this one seems so appropriate here at All-Star because nobody embodied All-Star more than Kobe Bryant,” he said.
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