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NBA TV ratings: 2022 starts with a mixed bag

Vincent Frank

With the 2021-22 in full bloom, NBA TV ratings will continue to be critical as the league hopes for a strong numbers during the 82-game slate.

Warriors and Lakers remain a major draw

In their last matchup before the All-Star Break, these two Western Conference foes drew 3.61 million viewers for their primetime Saturday night matchup on ABC. It represents the most-viewed non-Christmas Day game of the season. Including the holiday slate, it’s the fourth most-watched game of the NBA season. Yeah, LeBron James and Stephen Curry are still kings.

Related: Sportsnaut’s updated NBA power rankings

NFL dominates NBA during Christmas weekend

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Phoenix Suns
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The FOX/NFL Network broadcast of the Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers game drew 28.49 million viewers. For comparison’s sake, the five-game NBA slate saw just north of 24 million viewers tune in combined.

None of this is a surprise. In the past, the NFL had yielded the floor to the NBA when it comes to Christmas. That’s no longer the case, and it’s impacting the Association in a big way.

TNT backs down from NFL, reschedules Inside the NBA

After years of trying to compete with the NFL’s Thursday Night Football broadcasts, TNT has decided to give up the fight. “Inside the NBA”, broadcasted at 8 PM EST and followed by a doubleheader, is moving to Tuesdays.

NBA insider Marc Stein reported that TNT is moving away from Thursday night programming for the NBA until January, avoiding conflicts with the NFL schedule. For the time being, Inside the NBA will shift to Tuesdays.

Related: Updated NBA Playoff and championship predictions

NBA TV ratings for TNT, ESPN

The 2021-’22 NBA season is getting off to a solid start for the league and its broadcast partners. TNT’s Oct. 26 broadcast of the Philadelphia 76ers-New York Knicks clash averaged 1.41 million viewers, per SportsMediaWatch. It represents a 71% increase from a similar night during the 2019-’20 season that started in December. Better yet, it was also an improvement on a Thursday night TNT broadcast from 2019 (658,000).

ESPN’s broadcast of the Phoenix Suns vs. Los Angeles Lakers game pulled in 1.24 million viewers, an 8% spike from last season and a 59% improvement on a game in the same slot during the 2019 season that completed against the NFL.

Knicks, Celtics draw huge numbers for ESPN

NBA: New York Knicks at Orlando Magic
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Just days after the NBA TV ratings got off to a slow start to begin the season, numbers came roaring back. According to Deadline.com, the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics double-overtime game averaged 1.96 million viewers, topping out at an audience size of 2.87 million late in the game.

ESPN also aired the Phoenix Suns vs. Denver Nuggets (1.74 million viewers) on Wednesday night, as part of the season-opening doubleheader. The network announced it was their most-watched season-opening broadcasts since 2017 and the single Knicks-Celtics broadcast was the most-watched opener for ESPN in 18 years.

While the Suns-Nuggets matchup drew a smaller audience, it still represented a 39 percent spike from the late opener on ESPN in 2020 and a 10% bump from the audience size in 2019.

Related: Top 50 NBA players of 2022

Opening Night draws mixed reviews

nba tv ratings
Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

The Golden State Warriors’ upset win over the Los Angeles Lakers on TNT averaged 3.39 million viewers. That’s a 10% increase from the Clippers-Lakers season opener in 2020-21. It is also down 6% from Opening night 2019-20. The Warriors’ win delivered the second-best Opening Night ratings of the past four years.

Meanwhile, the opening of the doubleheader on TNT was not as great for the NBA. The defending champion Milwaukee Bucks’ win over the Brooklyn Nets drew an average of 2.16 million viewers. That’s down 20% from the Warriors-Nets opener a season ago. It must also be noted that the two games were going up against the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox ALCS series, which drew 4.14 million viewers.

NBA TV ratings: 2020-21 season in review

Game 6 of NBA Finals attracts most viewers since 2019 with mixed overall results

The Milwaukee Bucks’ Game 6 win over the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals Tuesday evening wrapped up what was an entertaining season around the Association. The game, broadcast on ABC, also drew 12.5 million viewers. It’s the most-watched championship round matchup since Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals between the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors.

Even then, this pales in comparison to previous years when the NBA drew a ton more viewers. Just look at the past several Game 6 matchups in the NBA Finals and their viewership totals.

Historical Game 6 NBA TV ratings for the Finals

nba tv ratings, nba finals
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
  • 2021 (Bucks-Suns): 12.5 million
  • 2020 (Lakers-Heat): 8.3 million
  • 2019 (Raptors-Warriors): 18.3 million
  • 2016 (Warriors-Cavaliers): 20.7 million
  • 2015 (Warriors-Cavaliers): 23.3 millio

As you can see, the 2020 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat in the bubble proved to be the single least-watched championship round matchup since NBA TV ratings started to be recorded back in 1991. This year’s Finals didn’t draw much more viewers.

There’s obviously a political backdrop to all of this given the divisiveness between star NBA players and those who exist on the right of the rhetorical line. Don’t expect that to change too much moving forward.

Mixed bag as NBA Finals continue

Two medium market teams in Phoenix and Milwaukee were never going to draw huge numbers when it comes to NBA TV ratings. But after some initial struggles with the 2021 NBA Finals continuing, Game 4 saw a major surge in viewership.

According to ABC, its broadcast of the Bucks’ Game 4 win drew an average of 10.25 million viewers. It’s the most-watched NBA Finals outing since Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals between the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors.

That’s the good news. The bad news? All 11 of the least-watched NBA Finals games of the past 14 years have taken place over the past two years. In fact, we have to go back to the 2007 NBA Finals to see numbers that compare to the past two matchups. Even then, seven of the past 11 games in the championship round have drawn less viewers than the least-watched game of 2007 when the San Antonio Spurs swept the Cleveland Cavaliers. Before that, we have to go back two decades to find similar numbers. Ouch!

NBA TV ratings share now at an all-time high

“The viewership share for this year’s playoffs — the percentage of people with TVs in use that are watching the NBA — is at its highest since the league first began logging that data during the 2002-03 season. The NBA also happens to feature the youngest audience across major sports, one advertisers covet,” Yahoo! Sports just recently noted.

In terms of recent games in the post-Stephen Curry and LeBron James era of NBA Playoffs, the Association has to be extremely happy. Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns ended in epic fashion. Ratings for that game were also up 66% from last year’s conference finals between King James’ Lakers and the Denver Nuggets.

There’s numerous reasons for fan interest. Among them, fans actually being able to attend games during the NBA Playoffs. That was not the case in the Orlando Bubble due to the COVID-19 pandemic a season ago. Fan interest can be directly linked to actually being able to attend games.

We’re also not seeing the same political rhetoric from both the occupant of the White House and well-known players around the Association.

Whether these numbers keep up remain to be seen. As noted above, neither Curry or James will be playing in the NBA Finals. This is the first time that will be the case since all the way back in 2010. In turn, interest in the NBA Finals could be muted to an extent.

NBA playoff ratings surge in comparison to last season

NBA TV ratings, NBA Playoffs
JBrad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

By now, it’s already known that the Orlando bubble last season was not great for NBA TV ratings. Excitement was brought to a lull with fans not being able to attend games and due to the political divisiveness of the time. That has not been the case through the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs.

According to Sports Media Watch, things are on an upward trajectory. A recent example would be Game 4 of the Los Angeles Lakers’ first-round series against the Phoenix Suns. It drew 5.38 million viewers on ABC, up 63% from a comparable game in the bubble last season. Said game was also the fourth most-watched matchup of the NBA season.

It remains to be seen if the Lakers’ ouster from the playoffs in Round 1 will result in a downward trend for TV ratings. LeBron James is a draw. Los Angeles is the second-largest media market in North America. Add in Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors failing to make the playoffs (three of the five highest-rated NBA games this season involved Curry), and that’s magnified further. The Brooklyn Nets’ ratings for their second-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks will be telling.