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TNT, ESPN Roll Roundball to ABC

TNT and ESPN turned coverage of the National Basketball Association Finals over to ABC, but the pro-hoops league’s national cable carriers enjoyed strong ratings rides throughout their playoff runs.

ESPN, with 20 telecasts, averaged a 3.3 household rating with the 2006 playoffs, a 27% jump over the 2.6 it averaged the year before, according to Nielsen Media Research data. Average viewership jumped 28% to 3.88 million from 3.02 million.

The total sports network -- led by the 5.5 household rating dunked by the fifth game of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and Detroit Pistons May 31, basic cable’s highest-rated show last week -- also saw substantial growth in key demos. The NBA playoffs grew 23% among men 18-34 to 781,000 of those watchers; 20% among men 18-49 (1.52 million); and 29% among men 25-54 (1.48 million).

On TNT’s side of the ledger, the drama network aired 45 playoff games, its most ever in the postseason. TNT’s presentation concluded with its exclusive coverage of the Western Conference Finals between the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns, and the network averaged a 3.1 household rating, up 4% from a 3.0 mark the prior year, as household delivery expanded 5% to 2.8 million homes on average.

Among adults 18-34, TNT scored a 6% gain to 1.03 million of those viewers on average and a 4% gain among adults 18-49 to 1.98 million. Among men 18-34, TNT was ahead 7% to 736,000, while the delivery of men 18-49 improved 4% to 1.43 million of those watchers.

“We were up across the board. It certainly was a great playoff run for the league, with nine games going into overtime and 15 decided within two points,” said Turner Sports president David Levy, who was encouraged by an improved product on the court.

“We’re seeing a better brand of ball, with great interest in [Cleveland Cavaliers forward] LeBron James’ first playoff appearance, the return of [guard] Kobe Bryant and the [Los Angeles] Lakers to the postseason. You have Shaq [center Shaquille O’Neal] and DWade [guard Dwayne Wade] in Miami. And [Mavericks forward] Dirk [Nowitzki] and [Suns point guard Steve] Nash have truly emerged as superstars,” he said. “I think it was a watershed year, with a lot of new teams emerging.”

Through its first 10 games of coverage, ABC averaged a 3.8 national rating and 5.34 million viewers, gains of 12% and 11%, respectively, versus nine games over the same span last year, according to Nielsen data.

To that end, Levy anticipates that the Finals will continue basketball’s ratings momentum.

“I think ABC is going to do well with Dallas and Miami, and that should serve as a springboard for next year. The success of ESPN and ABC also helps our business and the NBA’s overall,” said Levy, adding that TNT engaged in conversations with commissioner David Stern and other top league officials during the Western Conference Finals and will do the same during the championship series.

“It’s always an open dialogue. We’ve been with the NBA for 22 years and have every intention of continuing that relationship,” he said.

TNT and ESPN/ABC both have two seasons left on their current six-year NBA-rights deals, valued at $2.2 billion and $2.4 billion, respectively.