SBJ/July 2-8, 2012/Media

NBA’s small markets hang tough in playoffs, but so do the league’s TV ratings

After the first few weeks of the NBA playoffs, the league’s network television partners were worried. Big ratings draws like the Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers were out. In their place were small-market teams, like the Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.

“It felt like somebody punched you in the stomach,” said Doug White, ESPN’s senior director of programming and acquisitions.

Ratings for the Finals, with their LeBron James-Kevin Durant matchup, were down 1 percent.
Photo by: NBAE / GETTY IMAGES
But the league’s biggest TV draw — the Miami Heat — remained. And viewers kept watching.

“Once I saw how tough a series Indiana was giving Miami [in the second round], I said to myself, ‘This is going to be a really fun ride,’” White said. “The league is in a really good place right now.”

That “good place” was solidified with the playoffs’ television performance, which consistently pulled high viewership numbers even if those numbers were down from the past two years.

ABC averaged 16.855 million viewers for the five-game Finals series between Miami and Oklahoma City, down about 3 percent from last year’s 17.339 million average for the Heat’s six-game series with Dallas. This year’s series earned a 10.1 rating, down 1 percent from last year’s 10.2 rating.

Not including the Finals, ABC, ESPN and TNT averaged 5.301 million viewers this year for the playoffs, down 1 percent from last year’s 5.375 million — a result that may seem surprising given the competitive series during each round of the 2012 postseason. But league and network executives said the league’s TV performance matched expectations, especially considering the number of small markets that went deep into the playoffs.

“From our perspective, the numbers have been terrific,” said Jeremy Carey, U.S. director for Optimum Sports. “We’ve seen our clients’ interest peak over the last couple of years. Their impression is that the league has changed and has a lot of positive momentum.”

Much of that momentum can be seen in the star power of the Heat, obviously, but it’s also visible with Oklahoma City, which is the NBA’s third-smallest television market.

“We have seen the trend all year long with Oklahoma City,” said Danny Meiseles, executive vice president of programming and executive producer for the NBA. “The ratings were as strong as we expected. You might have your opinion about LeBron [James], but you can’t deny he is one of the greatest players, and our networks are benefiting.”

Network executives agreed.

“We’re still seeing growth, even with traditionally smaller TV markets,” said Christina Miller, senior vice president of strategy, marketing and programming for Turner Sports and general manager for NBA Digital. “One of the great things about the NBA is its strength among young men.”

With the NBA playoffs, TNT won the night four times among all cable and broadcast networks in the men 25-54 demographic. It won the night three times among cable and broadcast networks for total viewers, households and the adult 25-54 demo.

The league’s postseason ratings surprised some industry experts who said the NBA has been more effective in reaching young men than other sports.

“The average age of the NBA postseason viewer is 40,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president and director of research for Horizon Media. That age is younger than the postseason average for most other major leagues; only the MLS Cup audience is younger. “I expect ESPN, ABC, and TNT to raise their rates next year.”

Adgate said ABC charged advertisers roughly $500,000 for each 30-second spot during the Finals this year and was reportedly sold out of inventory, though he did not say how much the shorter five-game series cost the network in ad revenue as opposed to a six- or seven-game series.

Last year’s Finals spots started at $400,000 for units in Game 1 and increased to $632,300 for 30-second spots in Game 6.

Executives stressed that viewer interest remained strong throughout the playoffs.

“We won 32 out of the 40 nights we were on cable [during the NBA playoffs],” Meiseles said.

For example, the Heat’s seven-game series against Boston in the Eastern Conference finals set ratings records three times during the series, punctuated by Game 7, which was the highest-rated NBA game in cable TV history.

The Eastern Conference finals on ESPN averaged a 6.2 rating and 10.1 million viewers. Last year’s five-game Eastern Conference finals on TNT between the Heat and Chicago averaged a 6.2 rating and 10.4 million viewers.

Two smaller markets brought smaller conferences finals ratings for TNT this year, as the six-game Thunder-San Antonio Western Conference finals averaged a 5.0 rating and 7.8 million viewers. Those marks were down 19 percent and 25 percent, respectively, from the marks for the five-game Heat-Bulls series last year but up 16 percent and 13 percent from last year’s Mavericks-Thunder Western Conference finals, which was on ESPN.

ESPN and Turner rotate carrying the conference finals annually.

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