Why networks are pumped about NBA
Television executives seem giddy about the coming NBA season and believe strong offseason storylines, combined with the fact there’s no prohibitive favorite for the title, will lead to strong viewership numbers.
“I haven’t been this excited for an opening day for a long time,” said Craig Barry, executive vice president and chief content officer for Turner Sports. “We’re coming off one of the most interesting and provocative offseasons, maybe in the history of the NBA — certainly in the 30 years that we’ve been covering it.”
“I can’t wait for the NBA season,” said Burke Magnus, executive vice president of programming and scheduling for ESPN. “There are more storylines than ever this year and more games that are going to be meaningful, relevant and competitive. There are good games all over the schedule.”
The league is coming off a rough season on TV last year, as all networks carrying NBA games posted viewership declines. ESPN dropped 2%, ABC dropped 6%, NBA TV was down 10% and TNT was down 12%.
Turner’s Barry said he expects to have a good idea on how the season’s TV viewership will fare after the regular season’s opening week. TNT opens the season Oct. 22 with Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans visiting the defending champion Toronto Raptors, followed by the LeBron James and Anthony Davis-led Lakers playing the Kawhi Leonard and Paul George-led Clippers in Los Angeles.
Last year’s openers did not have the same draw, Barry said. That was when the Celtics-76ers and Warriors-Thunder played in the opening doubleheader.
“Opening week always jump-starts the ratings,” Barry said. “If we don’t play well on opening week, we’re playing a little bit of catch-up through the regular season.”
Magnus rattled off six teams in the Western Conference that, he said, have a legitimate shot to make the finals: the Clippers, Lakers, Jazz, Nuggets, Rockets and Warriors. Golden State has represented the West in the past five NBA Finals, and started the past four seasons as odds-on favorites to win the title.
Because so many quality teams are in the Western Conference, the league has moved up some start times to try to get those games in front of more fans. ESPN’s Wednesday night doubleheaders will start at 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. this season (except when it’s a doubleheader from the East and Central time zones; those games will start at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.). Last year, they started at 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.
“Tweaks like that to get these quality West teams in front of more viewers in the Eastern and Central time zones is going to make a difference,” Magnus said.
Both Barry and Magnus pointed to offseason moves, including the arrival of Williamson in New Orleans. College basketball viewership skyrocketed during Williamson’s one and only season at Duke last year.
“If last year was any indication at Duke, we are going to ride heavily because of the fascination that everyone has in him,” Magnus said.
Having Davis join James on the Lakers should help the team’s ratings. The Clippers’ free-agent signings of Leonard and George also should help that team’s viewership in the country’s second biggest media market.
“All of these unknowns pose the most interesting questions,” Barry said.
This season will see TNT celebrate the 30th anniversary of its “Inside the NBA” studio show. TNT plans to incorporate short pieces from the show’s 30 years throughout the season. It also plans to produce the backstories about how the show became so popular.
“It’s important for us that we don’t oversaturate it and overdo it — we want to pay tribute to ‘Inside the NBA’ and the guys,” he said. “We’re going to present it in the beginning and ramp up toward the mid and end of the season.”
TNT also plans changes for its Tuesday night telecast, which was dubbed “Players Only” the past two seasons and featured former players as talent.
“When we looked at it after year two, we agreed internally that it was an inconsistent product,” Barry said. “We want Tuesday nights to have a fresh, progressive lens. We don’t want it to be a carbon copy of Thursday nights. We want it to have its own personality and its own approach along with the talent that’s contributing to it.”
Turner expects to announce its Tuesday night changes in the coming weeks. Just last week, it hired Stan Van Gundy as a game analyst.