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Volume 22 No. 7
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NBA ratings take dip

Local ratings mirror declines seen nationally heading into All-Star break

The NBA’s television doldrums so far this season are happening at the local level, too, where regional sports network ratings from 28 U.S.-based teams had dropped 10 percent on average at the All-Star break compared to the same point last year.

Overall, most of the country’s RSNs have posted ratings gains this season; 15 have seen TV ratings increases in the first part of the season, and 13 have seen TV ratings decreases. (Information for Memphis and Toronto was not available at press time.)

But it was the size of the decreases — and the big markets where they occurred — that caused the overall RSN average to drop by double digits through Feb. 12. 

The drop-off is most pronounced in some of the league’s biggest markets, like New York (down 41 percent on MSG Network), Chicago (down 36 percent on NBC Sports Chicago) and Boston (down 27 percent on NBC Sports Boston). Ratings for Bulls games in Chicago are at their lowest point in at least 13 years as the team has struggled on the court with one of the NBA’s worst records.

Gregg Popovich and his San Antonio Spurs have seen local ratings fall by 34 percent this season, something the Spurs attribute to the rise in livestream viewership.
Photo: nbae / getty images

Not surprisingly, the country’s biggest local ratings drop-off is in Cleveland, where Cavs games on FS Ohio are down 56 percent compared to last year when LeBron James played for a team that made the NBA Finals. Conversely, James’ new team, the Los Angeles Lakers, has seen its games on Spectrum SportsNet jump by 42 percent.

The local ratings story mirrors a national trend that has seen sluggish TV numbers for NBA games so far this season. National games are down 18 percent on TNT and 17 percent on NBA TV. ABC is down 3 percent, and ESPN is flat. 

One reason network executives use to explain the downturn deals with James. His move to the West Coast has specifically hurt the TV numbers for the early game doubleheader windows, which has had a healthy dose of James throughout his career in East Coast time zones Cleveland and Miami. Plus, James has missed 20 games this season because of injury, which has negatively affected national network games. James has appeared in only four games on TNT, compared to eight at the same time last year. He missed two NBA Saturday prime-time games on ABC and another three games on ESPN. 

Locally, Denver has registered the biggest percentage gains, where the revitalized Nuggets have posted an 85 percent jump on Altitude as the team battles the Golden State Warriors for the best record in the Western Conference.

Another good news story is in Dallas, where Mavericks ratings on FS Southwest are up 74 percent, thanks in large part to the exciting play of 19-year-old Slovenian rookie Luka Doncic, who has captivated the Mavs fan base.

The NBA champion Warriors have posted the NBA’s highest local TV rating, with a 7.43 average on NBC Sports Bay Area. But the team also has posted a 16 percent ratings drop so far this season and is on pace to see its ratings drop for a third consecutive season.

Some may blame Warriors fatigue surrounding a team that has made it to the past four NBA Finals and is on course to make a deep run this spring. Warriors ratings also have been hurt by All-Star Stephen Curry missing 11 games during the first half of the season due to injury.

The league’s worst local ratings so far this season are in Orlando, where Magic games on FS Florida have posted a 0.44 rating. That is down 28 percent and on pace to be the team’s lowest rating in the 13 years for which Sports Business Journal has data.

Historically strong market San Antonio has experienced a significant ratings drop. The Spurs this year have seen their ratings fall by 34 percent on Fox Sports Southwest, though the team’s local ratings are still the third highest in the league.

Lawrence Payne, executive vice president of Spurs Sports & Entertainment, said the ratings are affected by increased livestream viewership of Spurs games that has grown by double digits annually as fans migrate to different viewing platforms.

“We were due for a regression,” Payne said. “We were outperforming year in and year out. We have had a big setback. The good news is that ratings have rallied of late and will continue to rise. The thing that remains to be seen is how streaming, as it continues to grow, is factored into the equation.”