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Why The NBA's TV Ratings Have Taken Off This Year

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Note to all sports leagues or players’ unions that want
to threaten the other side that a work stoppage will
kill all momentum for a league: We have some bad
news. It’s called the National Basketball Association.

After a 2010-11 season that bounced back
from LeBron James’ ridiculous “Decision” to
build strong television ratings momentum,
the league and players teamed up to commit
the fragrant foul of a work stoppage that appeared
to slam-dunk all that goodwill down
fans’ throats. All NBA coverage in the offseason
was about bickering between millionaires,
not exactly what the average American
wants to hear as the economy flounders.

The two sides finally got on the same page
after five months and a shortened, 66-game
season (down from the usual 82) tipped off
Dec. 25. And what has happened ever since
has been nothing short of a Christmas miracle
for the league and its television partners: The
ratings increases have shockingly picked up
right where they left off, and then some.

Over last year’s corresponding coverage, the
NBA’s national television ratings are up 21%
on ESPN, 24% on TNT and 18% on ABC.
The news is just as good at the local level,
with a 19% bump for NBA contests across all
regional sports networks. And even the NBA’s
own cable network is seeing a bounce, with
ratings up 57% on NBA TV, which has seen
an increase of more than 3.3 million households,
the largest growth of any cable network
since the start of the year.

Even NBA commissioner David Stern admitted
he was surprised at the league’s ability
to quickly put the lockout behind it. “It’s
what we hoped for, but had no reason to expect,”
Stern told B&C. “I think our fans are
giving us the benefit of the doubt.”

Executives from both ESPN and Turner
shared in the commissioner’s sentiment.

David Levy, president, sales, distribution and
sports for TNT owner Turner Broadcasting, said
that while he was con" dent fans would return
eventually, he wasn’t sure how quickly it would
happen. “We always knew there was [great]
strength in the brand,” said Levy. “What I didn’t
really know was how the fans would react and
would there be any backlash from the lockout.”

“I think anytime you have a situation like
that, you’re not sure to what level things will
carry over,” said Norby Williamson, ESPN
executive VP, programming & acquisitions.

And the eye-popping TV numbers are not
just about a New York Knicks guard capturing
national attention. Most of these ratings
jumps happened long before you had ever
heard the name Jeremy Lin.

While assigning cause and effect to television
ratings is about as easy as predicting
the winner of any given game, there are no
shortage of factors bouncing the right way
this year for the NBA.

Bright Lights in Big Cities

Big markets move TV numbers, and the
NBA is lousy with good teams and big stars
in top television markets. With superstars like
Chris Paul and slam-dunk champion Blake
Griffin, the Clippers have now joined Kobe
Bryant and the Lakers to give Los Angeles two
huge draws for the first time in, well, seemingly
ever. “It gives us another marquee franchise,”
said Williamson. “It gives you another
story line in a major market.”

At presstime, the upstart Clippers had
a better record than the Lakers and were
also making the biggest move in the TV ratings. The Clippers have
played in two of the three
highest-rated games this
season on ESPN, and three
of NBA TV’s highest-rated
games ever. Locally, Clippers
games are up 154%
on Prime Ticket, L.A.’s
regional sports net—
the top increase in the
league. “There is a compelling
reason to watch
them every night,” said
Jeff Krolik, executive VP,
Fox Sports Regional Networks.
“They have been a
great story for us.”

And in the Big Apple,
thanks in no small part
to “Linsanity”, the Knicks
have become a national
draw (more so than a local one, perhaps, given
the current MSG Network–Time Warner
Cable spat). And with great teams and/or
players in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia,
Dallas and Miami, there is big-time basketball
in many big-time markets.

No Rest For the Weary,
Or the Fans

While slamming 66 games into roughly 120
days is not easy on NBA players (especially the
older ones), coaches or team athletic trainers
trying to keep the guys healthy, it is great for
the fans. Teams are playing more games per
week than usual, so fans don’t have to wait
long to see their team, or perhaps check in on
a hot team or player they have heard about.
And the TV partners see bene! ts to having so
many games packed together; it makes for very
few boring nights in the league.

“Every single night [there is] a star-studded
game that has national
appeal,” said Levy.

Yet it’s no secret that
in cramming so many
games into so few weeks,
as well as a mad dash to
start the season to preserve
as many games as
they could, the quality of
the play has suffered.

“This season has
proven you need training
camps. You need
practice. And you need
rest. And there’s not
enough of any of that
this year,” TNT analyst
Steve Kerr said during
a conference call promoting
the network’s
All-Star Game coverage.
“We are seeing games
that are spectacular, and then some duds
where there is nothing in the tank.”

But according to the ratings, fans don’t
seem to mind. And Stern is bullish about the
teams’ ability to handle the tightened schedule
over the course of the campaign. “Our
teams are adapting,” he said. “They have altered
some of their training techniques and
nutritional approaches.”

The Kids Are All Right

Stern noted that the emergence of young
star players such as Grif! n in Los Angeles,
Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in Oklahoma
City and Derrick Rose in Chicago have
shot new life into the league as aging legends
like L.A.’s Bryant, Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki and
Boston’s Kevin Garnett enter the twilight of
their careers. “I think our fans are tuning in to
see a literal galaxy of stars,” Stern said.

Durant and Westbook play in one of the league’s smallest markets, yet the Thunder
boasts a strong national following. “When
Oklahoma City is playing well, the fact that
it’s one of the league’s smallest markets is
irrelevant,” said Stern.

The NBA’s ratings surge is not just on the
national level, as teams across the league are
experiencing huge local ratings increases.
Making some of the biggest gains are the
Minnesota Timberwolves, whose ratings have
jumped 141% on Fox Sports North, no doubt
buoyed by the exciting play of flashy Spanish
import Ricky Rubio. “It’s not that complicated.
A team starts to become compelling and puts
a good product out there on the floor,” said
FSRN’s Krolik. “People are really interested.”

Fox Sports Regional Networks provide coverage
for 17 of the NBA’s 30 teams, including
the Orlando Magic. While the Magic’s ratings
are up 75% on Fox Sports Florida, the team
faces the impending question of star Dwight
Howard’s future. Krolik understands that the loss of free agent-to-be Howard would no
doubt negatively affect the team’s ratings, but
said “we’re partners with these teams, and
we’re with them for the long-term.”

A Very Merry Christmas

One of the by-products of a delayed start to
the season was the ability of the league to use
Christmas Day—annually one of its biggest
ratings days—as the launching pad for the
season, instead of the usual Tuesday night in
late October.

But Levy doesn’t believe that starting on
a more marquee day had too much to do
with it, noting the last season’s opener was
the highest-rated ever for TNT. “This is the
fourth year in a row that we’ve had doubledigit
ratings increases in the regular season,”
said Levy. ESPN’s Williamson added that “in a
perfect world, we like that late October-early
November launch,” noting that the network
missed the opportunity to fully preview the
season due to the rushed start.

However, it’s hard to argue that starting the
season on Christmas didn’t have a positive
effect; not having games in October and November
means not having to compete with
the NFL during two of its busiest months.
“There may have been some issue with fans
feeling deprived,” said Stern. “Once they were
able to satisfy themselves on Christmas Day,
they only wanted more.”

The NBA’s presence in the digital space,
while not directly responsible for bringing in
more viewers, has kept them more engaged.
Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter,
which serves as sort of an online sports bar,
have made it easier for fans to engage with
each other as well as players.

“Living in that space has to increase fan affinity for the NBA,” said Williamson, whose
ESPN boasts apps like ScoreCenter and
WatchESPN that make it easier for fans to
stay engaged. “They are very tech-savvy—
there is an insatiable appetite for news from
around the NBA.”

The league has been often credited as being
on forefront of technology and using its digital
platforms to supplement its TV product.
“[Stern] understands that you’ve got to ‘fish
where the fish are,’” said Levy.

The commissioner is very appreciative of
the fans for coming back so quickly. “Despite
all the rhetoric back-and-forth,” the fans saw
that “a certain reset was needed,” he said.
Added Williamson: “I think most fans right
now would say, ‘What lockout?’”

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