NBA TV ratings in 2020-21, numbers that will define the season

NBA TV ratings were the talk of the league’s restart at Walt Disney World in Orlando last season. The backdrop here was widespread national anthem protests in the bubble and teams boycotting games following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Some fans were turned off from the politics of it all during what had been a trying 2020 calendar year around the United States due to the global pandemic and racial angst domestically. It led to a downtick in NBA ratings, with these two things acting as major components.

Now with the 2020-21 campaign ongoing, things have changed dramatically from an NBA TV ratings perspective. Below, we provide updates throughout the season.

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Updated: May 3, 8:25 PM EST

Political activism continuing to impact NBA TV ratings with some signs of change

NBA shutdown
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

A poll conducted by Yahoo News/YouGov back in March showed that 34.5% of respondents have watched less sports as leagues around the community continue with their social justice campaigns.

“Looking at the different political party affiliations, 19 percent of Democrats said they have watched less sports in light of social justice messaging, while 13.7 percent said they have watched more,” Newsweek noted. “In comparison, 53 percent of Republicans said they have watched less sports due to social justice messaging, and just 8.6 percent said they have watched more.”

To a lesser extent than last season, the 2020-21 NBA campaign has been politically-themed. The likes of LeBron James continue to make their opinions known. But as some of the rhetoric dies down following a 2020 calendar year defined by politics, we’re also seeing a downtick in divisiveness when it comes to the NBA.

“At the start of the 2020-2021 NBA season, Nielsen Media Research data showed that NBA viewership for nationally televised games on TNT, ABC and ESPN was up 34 percent compared to the same 27-game period from last season,” Newsweek noted.

It’s going to be interesting how this changes during the NBA Playoffs and whether life events in the United States impacts what happens. Remember, certain teams opted to boycott games during the playoffs last fall following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin and amid protests stemming from the shooting death of Breonna Taylor as well as the murder of George Floyd.

Hope is that NBA TV ratings improve as regular season draws to a near

NBA TV Ratings
Apr 30, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) dribbles past Sacramento Kings forward Maurice Harkless (8) during the first quarter at Staples Center. James returned to the Lakers lineup after recovering from an ankle injury. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

With a ton of star power missing action recently, NBA TV ratings have been on a downward trajectory. There’s a good chance that the Association will see an uptick as the regular season draws to a conclusion. But for now, there’s cautious optimism.

Back on April 24, the Lakers-Mavericks Saturday night broadcast on ABC was second-to-last among the network’s eight Saturday night games this season, drawing 1.89 million views, courtesy of Sports Media Watch. This was a game that saw Anthony Davis return to action with LeBron James still sidelined. It’s obviously an indication of how star power impacts ratings around the Association.

Update: April 21, 3:16 PM EST

Stephen Curry’s historical run boosts NBA TV ratings

NBA TV Ratings
Feb 6, 2021; Dallas, Texas, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) reacts to being fouled and knocked to the floor by Dallas Mavericks forward Maxi Kleber (not pictured) during the second half at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

What two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry has done since returning from a tailbone injury is nothing short of extraordinary. The Golden State Warriors star is averaging 40 points on 50% shooting from distance over the past 11 games. Those are not typos. They have also helped the NBA see an increase in TV ratings recently.

Read More: NBA MVP Race 2020-2021: Stephen Curry enters the conversation

According to Sports Media Watch, last Saturday night’s Warriors loss to the Boston Celtics drew a whopping 2.49 million viewers on ABC — the network’s most-watched NBA game since these Warriors took on the Brooklyn Nets back in Feb. 13. It represents the ninth most-watched game of the season. And of the 10 games with the most viewership, the Warriors have played in five of said outings. The NBA can thank Curry for returning to his elite-level form. That’s for sure.

Updated: April 11, 1:26 PM EST

NBA TV contract expected to soar moving forward

Adam Silver, NBA TV
Aug 19, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; NBA Commissioner Adam Silver attends an NBA basketball game between the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Clippers at AdventHealth Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ashley Landis/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Weeks after the NFL and its broadcast partners agreed to a record 11-year contract worth north of $100 billion (that’s a thing), the NBA is expected to see a major revenue increase when it signs a new contract.

“One person familiar with sports media deals said the NBA could get $70.2 billion over nine years, using metrics including total viewer hours, which helps networks determine the value of sports league rights,” Jabari Young of CNBC noted. “The person also said tier-one sports rights are important to streaming services.”

The NBA’s current contract, headlined by deals with Disney and WarnerMedia, pays out just $2.6 billion per year. Its total value of $24 billion is also mind-bogglingly small in comparison to the new NFL figures.

One of the primary reasons for this expected dramatic increase in NBA TV contracts is the fact that the Association has more appeal beyond the United States and boasts a younger mainstream audience in terms of demographics than the NFL.

As noted below, the 2019-20 NBA season saw a dramatic decrease in viewership. That’s primarily due to the pandemic and the heated political rhetoric in an election year. This has not been the case throughout the 2020-21 campaign. That, too, will play a role.

“I think everyone expects that so long as the public is demonstrating through ratings that they are watching the NBA, you can probably expect increases there as well,” said former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson. “I would think the NBA is going to look for significant increases.”

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Clippers-Lakers Easter day game sees historically low NBA TV ratings

Los Angeles Clippers net huge NBA opening night win over Lakers
Dec 22, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) controls the ball against LA Clippers guard Paul George (13) in the second half at Staples Center. The Clippers defeated the Lakers. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Ratings for sporting events during holidays are always a tricky thing to analyze. That’s much more true right now with certain segments of society getting back to some sense of normalcy as more Americans find themselves vaccinated from coronavirus. That was true earlier in April as families got together for the Easter holiday. It also had a major impact on one of the games we figured would be among the most-watched of the season.

ABC’s broadcast of the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers game saw 1.76 million people tune in. It was the network’s lowest rated and second least-watched game of the season. While the Easter holiday played a role in this, Lakers stars Anthony Davis and LeBron James being inactive due to injuries likely played a larger role in the decrease of viewership.

NBA TV ratings continue surge to start 2020-21 season

NBA TV Ratings
Jan 28, 2021; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) gets fouled by Detroit Pistons center Mason Plumlee (24) during the first quarter at Little Caesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

It appears that basketball fans are showing a renewed interest in the NBA about five weeks into the 2020-21 season. We already know that numbers over the first few days, Christmas included, were up from a season ago. Now, more than a month later, and the Association is keeping up with that momentum.

According to Sports Media Watch, last week’s mid-week game between the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers saw 1.78 million viewers tune in to ESPN. That’s up 103% from a comparable game between the Pistons and Nets last season. It’s also up a resounding 97% from a Pacers-Wizards game back in January of 2019. The good news for Adam Silver and the NBA doesn’t stop there.

Per, Sports Media Watch

“On TNT Thursday night, Blazers-Rockets averaged 1.10 million and Warriors-Suns 1.20 million — up 22% and 50% respectively from last year’s comparable doubleheader (Warriors-Celtics: 904K; Jazz-Nuggets: 802K).”

NBA TV ratings soar early in 2020-21 season

NBA TV Ratings
Dec 22, 2020; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Golden State Warriors shooting guard Kent Bazemore (26) fights for a loose ball against Brooklyn Nets small forward Kevin Durant (7) and point guard Kyrie Irving (11) during the first quarter at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

According to Jeff Zillgitt of USA TODAY, numbers are up dramatically from the start of the 2019-20 NBA season.

“TV ratings on ESPN, ABC and TNT were up 67% over last year’s opening week, which was October 22-25, and averaged minutes watched on League Pass Dec. 22-25 increased 67% compared to last season’s opening week,” the report read.

It must be noted that the 2020-21 NBA season started two months later due to the COVID-19 pandemic prolonging the 2019-20 campaign. Even then, these are some remarkable numbers for commissioner Adam Silver and Co.

  • The TNT opening night games between the Warriors-Nets and Clippers-Lakers represented the most-watched opening doubleheader from an NBA TV ratings perspective since 2017.
  • The huge slate of Christmas Day games averaged 2.83 million viewers, up 10% from a season ago. In terms of NBA TV ratings, the Pelicans and Heat game on ESPN represented the holiday’s most-watched cable broadcast. All said, the opening week of 2020-21 NBA action represented the most-watched slate of action since all the way back in 2011.

Related: NBA TV schedule

NBA TV ratings: A theme or an exception to the rule

NBA TV ratings: Celtics star Jayson Tatum beats Bucks
Dec 23, 2020; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0), guard Jeff Teague (55), and guard Jaylen Brown (7) celebrate after making a basket against the Milwaukee Bucks during the second half at the TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Sports Media Watch notes that last Wednesday’s dramatic Celtics win over the Bucks saw two million viewers on TNT, up 17% from the second day of the 2019-20 NBA season. However, the Mavericks-Suns game later in the night was down in terms of NBA TV ratings by 10% from a season ago.

Obviously, we’re too early in the campaign to draw any realistic conclusions as it relates to ratings around the Association. We’re going to need a ton more date to compare.

There’s outliers when it comes to NBA TV viewership this season. Rather than starting in October against the MLB Playoffs, there’s not a whole lot going on when it comes to midweek sports action. That obviously plays a role here.

It must also be noted that NBA TV ratings toward the end of last season lagged big time compared to the NFL. Don’t expect that to change with the Association going up against the NFL Playoffs during the weekend come January.

Even then, there’s a lot to like here for Adam Silver and Co. Perhaps, fans are more interested now that games are being played in home markets rather than the Orlando bubble. While a vast majority of teams are not hosting fans, it could lead to more interest from a local perspective.

The 2020 presidential election cycle is also over. It was in full swing as the Association finished up its 2019-20 season. With that came a lot of divisiveness throughout the United States. Another thing to look at here is the growing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic around the country and the fact that Americans are going to be huddled at home during the winter until the vaccines become widely available to the mainstream public.

As it is, NBA TV ratings represent a story to watch unfold as the truncated 72-game schedule continues.

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