The NBA playoffs tipped off this weekend and if the regular-season proves to be Nielsen prologue, then national carriers TNT, NBA TV, ESPN and ABC should be sitting on ratings gains.
Averaging a 1.6 household rating, up 45% from a 1.1 mark for the 2009-10 season, TNT, which scored three of the top five all-time most-watched regular season games in cable history, averaged 2.45 million viewers for 52 games during the 2010-11 campaign, up 42% from a 1.72 million average. That was its best in 27 years of pro hoops coverage, and ranked 30% above its second-best regular-season average audience of 1.89 million in 1995-96, during the Michael Jordan era.
ESPN and ABC also notched their top seasons since beginning their coverage during the 2002-03 season. ESPN averaged a 1.5 rating and just over 2 million viewers for 71 games, increases of 25% and 29%, respectively, over a 1.2 and 1.56 million watchers for 75 contests last season. Previously, ESPN's highest-rated season was the 2003-04 season's 1.4 average, while its most-viewed was 2008-09, when it scored with 1.68 million viewers on average.
Broadcast brethren ABC netted a 3.1 U.S. rating average and 5.11 million watchers over 15 telecasts, advances of 35% and 43% from a 2.3 and 3.69 million for 15 games last season. ABC's highest-rated and most-viewed season since its return to the sport came in 2002-03, when it delivered a 2.6 rating and 3.76 million viewers.
"This continues the trend with the league over the last few years," said ESPN senior director of programming and acquisitions Doug White. "Things started with the [Los Angeles] Lakers/[Boston] Celtics seven-game series in the 2010 Finals, continued with free-agency and USA Basketball's win at the World Championships."
Christina Miller, senior vice president, Turner Sports Strategy/Marketing/Programming and Cartoon Network Enterprise, echoed White's sentiments, pointing to the game's greatest rivalry, which ended in a Lakers repeat. "There has been a constant buzz and cultural noise around the NBA that has never stopped.
To that end, Miller also talked about LeBron James's much-ballyhooed "decision" to take his talents to South Beach, the rest of free agency period, and the Kevin Durant-led USA Basketball's victory at the World Championships that qualified this nation for the 2012 Olympics. And from there, things only got hotter on the hardwood.
"Everybody thought the story was going to be the Miami Heat and the three superstars [James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh]. Well, it turned out to be just one of stories," she said. Miller said NBA ratings were fueled by the resurgence of the San Antonio Spurs; the ups and downs of the Lakers; the rise of Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls; the Blake Griffin phenomenon; and the rebounds by the Philadelphia 76ers and the New York Knicks via the Amar'e Stoudemire free-agent acquisition and then the Carmelo Anthony trade.
White said the game is "really in a new golden era. For those of us who grew up watching Jordan, Magic [Johnson], [Larry] Bird, Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and Hakeem [Olajuwon], this is a new generation of great players. Many will be in the Hall of Fame and they're bringing a lot of new young fans to the game."
Along those baselines, both the Disney and Turner camps also reported significant demo growth among young males. ESPN, ABC and TNT averaged 496,530, 908,984 and 496,530 guys 18 to 34, jumps of 40%, 33% and 43%, respectively.
Now, the playoffs are set. ESPN opened matters at 1 p.m. on April 17 with Chicago and Rose outscoring Indiana 16-1 down the stretch for a 104-99 triumph. That was followed by the Heat holding off the Sixers on ABC. Atlanta overcame 46 by Orlando center Dwight Howard on ESPN at 7 p.m., while Dirk Nowitzki erupted in th fourth quarter as Dallas held its homecourt advantage over Portland on the worldwide leader at 9:30 p.m.
On Sunday, TNT jumps in with Memphis-San Antonio at 1 p.m., the Knicks-Celtics at 7 p.m. and Denver-Oklahoma City at 9:30 p.m. The Lakers face the New Orleans Hornets at 3:30 p.m. on ABC that day.
For its part, 56-million home NBA TV -- which averaged 401,000 viewers for its Tuesday "Fan Night" contests and 253,000 for 96 regular-season games overall during its rookie season on the Nielsen roster -- is also in the postseason house with extensive news coverage, as well as between four and 11 live contests.
Turner's more than "40 games in 40 nights, win or go home" trek, culminates with exclusive coverage of the Eastern Conference finals. This year, White's more partial to the West being the best, as it's ESPN's turn with that division -- the NBA partners alternate those each season under their current rights agreements. All told, ESPN and ABC will combine on up to 44 telecasts, while NBA TV will showcase up to 11 contests.
Neither executive would tip their hand about what matchups might make for the best Nielsens, but they were teammates in "rooting for lots of Games 6 and 7s" throughout the postseason.
Hopefully, the action of the court will be memorable because fans may have to savor it for a while -- the league faces a work stoppage that could airball part or all of next season.
"That's possible," said White, when asked if ESPN would add more college games to its schedule if the NBA hits the labor skids. "We'll cross that bridge later. We're expecting [the NBA] to play."
Miller expressed a similar optimism about the league and its players reaching a new collective bargaining agreement. Officials at Turner and ESPN would not address rights obligations should the league shut down next season.