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When it comes to TV ratings for sports, there’s the NFL, which brings in huge audiences even when the games aren’t that great, and then there’s everything else. But in 2014, ESPN and TNT showcased their faith in the NBA’s popularity on the small screen by laying down a nine-year $24 billion deal. Here we are, just over a year later, and the average audiences for NBA games are down 8.2% and 5.6% on TNT and ESPN, respectively, from 2014’s tallies. So is this a sign of actual trouble, or are there other factors contributing to the overall ratings dip?
To be expected, it depends on who you talk to. If you’re looking at just the numbers, it’s a definite issue, and it has been since the lockout in 2012. TNT’s ratings in 2014 were as low as they’d been in years, so seeing a drop from there has to be frustrating. It’s even more damning when you look at how both TNT and ESPN get to handpick which games are aired now, which allows for a nice mixture of important games and contests between extremely popular teams, making boring telecasts a rare occurrence. But not even the red hot defending champ Golden State Warriors can keep the numbers up.
But from the perspective of TNT and ESPN, nothing is wrong at all, and this is just part of the process. According to The Wall Street Journal, Turner’s chief research officer Howard Shimmel says that the current average audience of 1.7 million is basically the same average earned by the entire 2014-2015 season, so it’s not that big of a deal. It’s also pointed out that some of the games saw lower ratings because they aired opposite Thursday Night Football or the World Series or the presidential debates. That’s true, but saying that the stronger competition is winning is hardly a strong sign of progress.
There are also Internet-related details to consider. The plethora of non-linear TV packages surfacing everywhere has certainly pulled some former TV viewers away from live sports, although ESPN’s senior V.P. for global research says that cord cutters “are just not sports fans.” (Make your own judgments there.) But on the bright side, the NBA also has the new option for fans to watch any single game they want for $6.99, which allows out-of-market games to be watched in a way that doesn’t involve subscribing to the NBA League Pass. Numbers weren’t offered for how many people have used either of those services this season, but NBA spokespeople were happy with how it was going.
The NBA has built up a fairly huge presence in social media over the last year, so maybe that will begin to pay off in actual viewership in the future. For now, though, we’re just waiting on someone to realize that making Space Jam 2 is the only real solution to any problem.