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Why the NBA Playoff Ratings Aren’t a Slam Dunk

May 22nd, 2019   ||    by Todd Wasserman

LeBron James’s disappearance from the NBA playoffs for the first time in 13 years has already put a dent in ratings. After James bowed out on March 30 due to injury, NBA playoff ratings have fallen 14 percent since last year, according to Sports Media Watch.

The shift is puzzling to many fans and TV executives. The NBA has been seeing a steady rise in viewership for the past few years. But newer viewers tend to be of the casual variety. The league has also successfully courted an international fan base.

The result is a mixed bag for advertisers. With fewer big stars in the finals, ratings are projected to be down, though the league is picking up in the regular season, Variety reported.

A Lack of Stars

The NBA suffers from a lack of playoff presence in big metropolitan areas. For instance, network ratings for 28 teams fell 10 percent on average at the All-Star break versus last year, Sports Business Journal noted. In New York, Chicago, and Boston, ratings fell 41 percent, 36 percent, and 27 percent. National games were down 18 percent on TNT, 17 percent on NBA TV, and 3 percent on ABC.

While James is a star, he is 34—toward the twilight of his career. The league’s other big star, Steph Curry, is 31. Other players, like Anthony Davis, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook are solid, but not well-known. The result is that the playoffs don’t get the kind of widespread recognition they got in the past.

That criticism echoes for advertisers, who aim for high NBA playoff ratings. Last year’s finals averaged 17.7 million viewers, according to Sports Media Watch. It was the first time that not a single NBA game drew 19 million viewers.

A Growing International Audience

While ratings have fallen in the US, the NBA’s international audience is growing. Partially that’s because basketball remains globally popular. In that light, a slight pullback in basketball’s US audience isn’t that big a concern: “The league has opened up 12 international offices, establishing seven academies on four continents and started broadcasting games to more than 200 countries and territories,” USA Today reported.

Some 300 million people in China play the game. A weekly highlight show draws up to 30 million fans. Unlike football, it’s a close analog to soccer and doesn’t require expensive equipment.

An Assessment

Overall, the long-term trends don’t seem too dire. The lower ratings for TV games merely mirror a shifting audience for the sport. If anything, basketball is realizing its global appeal. In the meantime, advertisers shouldn’t worry too much about ratings fluctuations.

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