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Low NBA ratings don't indicate a downturn in interest

NBA ratings have started off slowly, but it is not cause for concern.

Ted Leonsis, John Skipper and Adam Silver (Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)
Ted Leonsis, John Skipper and Adam Silver (Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)

Patience is a rarity in sports. Prognosticators must have a hot take, and it must be immediate. The media is in a race to get eyeballs and clicks, and the quickest and loudest reactions generate the most buzz. The latest refrain: The NBA, even after signing its massive new media deal, is in trouble. This season just isn’t creating buzz. The ratings for the NBA opening-night games were down substantially (see chart). LeBron James’ 2014 homecoming didn’t match his 2010 Heat coming out party. The NBA’s popularity doesn’t appear to justify the broadcast rights’ price tag.

Take a deep breath, the NBA is going to be OK.

Year Teams Channel Rating Viewers
2014 Spurs vs. Maverticks TNT 1.5 2.3 million
2013 Bulls vs. Heat TNT 3.3 5.4 million
2013 Clippers vs. Lakers TNT 2.4 3.6 million
2012 Heat vs. Celtics TNT 3.2 5.4 million
2012 Mavericks vs. Lakers TNT 2.9 4.3 million
2011 Bulls vs. Mavericks TNT Lockout
2011 Lakers vs. Thunder TNT Lockout
2010 Heat vs. Celtics TNT 4.6 7.3 million
2010 Lakers vs. Rockets TNT 2.8 4.3 million
2009 Celtics vs. Cavaliers TNT 2.6 4 million
2009 Clippers vs. Lakers TNT 2.1 3.4 million
2008 Celtics vs. Cavaliers TNT 1.7 2.6 million
2008 Trail Blazers vs. Lakers TNT 1.6 2.5 million

Concerns remain. Major media markets and their marquee teams are not expected to have winning teams this season. Teams from Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles (specifically the Lakers) and New York likely won’t be championship contenders. This could drive fans to other sports, such as hockey, in those markets. The Clippers should be contenders, but the Lakers still have a stronger brand for now. Of the predicted top five teams (10 total) in the East and West, only the Clippers, Warriors, Bulls and Wizards are in top 10 media markets. If other large markets become disenchanted with their teams, it could lead to casual fans in those markets not tuning in.The Spurs and Mavericks matchup brought in a lower rating than previous openers, but that game was up against Game 7 of a close World Series. LeBron’s homecoming in Cleveland went up against NFL (Saints vs. Panthers) and NCAA football games (No. 2 ranked Florida State vs. Louisville). Nothing beats the NFL in ratings (well, except for zombies), so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some casual viewers stayed away from the Cavs vs. Knicks matchup.

Still, let’s take a deep breath. The NBA has shifted to a business model where stars can be stars without big cities. LeBron is in Cleveland. Kevin Durant is in Oklahoma City. Anthony Davis is in New Orleans. These are well-known names, and once Christmas comes around, so will the ratings. Last year’s NBA finals did well. The NBA also recognized how the business model has shifted toward digital distribution in its recent broadcast rights deal. With stars players in different-sized markets, and more money flowing into the league, the NBA should be just fine.

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