Despite a delayed and shortened regular season due to a
labor dispute, ratings for National Basketball Association games are generating a slam
dunk for cable sports networks.
At the midpoint of the truncated, 50-game season, national
and regional sports networks' NBA ratings are up over last year, despite the loss of
more than 550 national and regional NBA telecasts due to the league's labor dispute.
The performance is all the more surprising given the
retirement of Michael Jordan, who used to be worth at least one rating point per game.
Sports-network executives believe that ratings will
continue to rise as the league heads into the postseason.
The predicted backlash against the league after its long
and bitter six-month labor lockout never truly materialized, as cable is enjoying one of
its highest-rated NBA seasons.
For the most part, Nielsen Media Research ratings for
regional sports networks are up as much as 20 percent to 30 percent, as fans welcomed back
their local teams' telecasts with open arms.
On the national side, Turner Network Television's
ratings are up 18 percent over last year's overall ratings, network executives said.
TNT is averaging a 2.0 rating despite losing 47 telecasts to the lockout.
"We're pleased with how strong the numbers have
been so far," said Greg Hughes, vice president of public relations for TNT. "We
always believed in the strength of the NBA on TV, so we're not surprised at all with
TNT was in the minority with that opinion, though. Most
industry observers figured that ratings would nosedive amid fan backlash due to the
Prior to the start of the season, several media polls
showed that a majority of fans were not interested in seeing a truncated NBA season.
But nearly two months later, ratings have not only kept
pace with last year's numbers, but in many instances, they have surpassed the most
optimistic of projections.
Had ratings not been up to snuff, networks could have been
forced to offer expensive givebacks to advertisers.
The surprising success is especially true for local
Madison Square Garden Network, for example, is experiencing
a 33 percent ratings increase for 23 New York Knicks telecasts this season, compared with
the first 23 games of last season.
The network also registered a whopping 4.83 rating for a
Feb. 11 Knicks-Chicago Bulls game -- its highest-rated NBA game since 1995.
Fox Sports New York has seen a 45 percent surge in its New
Jersey Nets ratings versus last year, including an incredible 409 percent increase in its
season-opening telecast compared with last year's, the network reported.
"What we're seeing is the pent-up demand from
viewers for professional basketball," said Joseph Cohen, executive vice president for
MSG Networks, which oversees both Knicks and Nets telecasts. "The ratings show that
basketball is alive and well."
Along with a ratings increase, Cohen said, sponsor interest
is also "very strong," although he would not say whether Knicks or Nets ad
inventory is sold out for the rest of the year.
Philadelphia-based Comcast SportsNet is averaging a 3.0
rating for its Philadelphia 76ers telecasts -- nearly double last year's overall
numbers. Further, the network set an all-time record for a 76ers game March 5, when that
team's contest against the Miami Heat generated an impressive 5.1 rating.
"Even in the beginning of the season, when the Sixers
hit a slump, the ratings remained strong," said Jamey Horan, director of
communications for Comcast SportsNet. "With the numbers that we see now, we
don't see any reason for those numbers to dissipate."
Other markets experiencing increases include Orlando, where
Sunshine Network's Orlando Magic games are averaging a 7.3 rating, compared with 6.4
last year. And Fox Sports Northwest's Seattle SuperSonics ratings are up to 7.3 from
6.8 last year.
Jordan's retirement has hurt Fox Sports Chicago, as
the network's average rating for Bulls games is down to 4.4 from an 8.9 last year,
according to Fox Sports.
Industry observers said the league was fortunate to avoid
the fan backlash that Major League Baseball experienced several years ago.
While MLB's 1994 strike came in the middle of what was
a terrific baseball campaign, the NBA lockout happened before any games were played, which
apparently built up demand for the product instead of souring fans.
Plus, with the shortened schedule, every regular-season win
or loss means more, heightening interest.
"Obviously, the fans missed the product, and they
easily got over the rancor of the strike," said Robert Gutkowski, president of The
Marquee Group, a sports-marketing and production company. "The ratings are up without
any special marketing push from the league or the networks."
But Gutkowski wasn't sure whether ratings will
continue their upward growth, particularly on the regional side, as teams begin falling
out of playoff contention. "Ratings will continue to be strong, but I don't know
if they will continue to rise at the levels that we're seeing now," he said.
Cohen was hopeful that basketball will continue to hold the
interest of sports fans, even with the start of the baseball season next week. "We
hope that the teams stay competitive and that the fans continue to watch the games,"