Nearly two months into the NBA season, TV ratings for national games are down 17% on TNT and 17% on ESPN.
That’s a slight improvement from two weeks ago, when the numbers were down 22% and 19%, respectively. But this ratings slide at the outset of a new season has onlookers asking big-picture questions about how the NBA will fare amid the obvious acceleration of cord-cutting. And make no mistake, this ratings dip matters.
The NBA and its broadcast partners are making their choice of explanation for the dip clear: player injuries.
“We've had some bad luck,” NBA deputy commissioner and COO Mark Tatum told Yahoo Finance’s Akiko Fujita on Dec. 9. “Two-thirds of our games this year on national TV on ESPN and TNT featured teams that had at least one player injured. Players like Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Zion Williamson, these were all players people wanted to see and they have not been able to because they’re all injured.”
Half of national games have had an injured star missing
Indeed, this season has suffered a nearly unprecedented number of injuries to stars. As of Dec. 18, 52% of the games on ESPN and TNT (22 of 42 games) have had a star out with injury.
In a stroke of particularly bad luck, the Pelicans or Warriors, two of the teams worst hit by injury (Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson and Warriors stars Steph Curry and Klay Thompson), have played in five of the TNT games and seven of the ESPN games, or 28% of the total national TV games this season.
And speaking of bad luck, TNT tipped off its season on Oct. 22 with the New Orleans Pelicans (missing Zion Williamson) vs. Toronto Raptors (a non-measured market by Nielsen), followed by the L.A. Clippers (missing star Paul George with injury) vs L.A. Lakers.
But sports ratings onlookers also know that ratings booms or dips can almost never be explained by one single thing. When NFL ratings declined for two seasons in a row in 2016 and 2017, pundits wanted to put it all on the political controversy resulting from the Kaepernick protests—that was certainly a factor, but not the only factor.
Player injuries are likely the biggest reason for the current NBA ratings dip, but not the only one.
The schedule of games has also hurt ratings.
TNT’s Thursday night NBA games have had to face off against Thursday NFL games, and the NFL has seen a ratings bump this season.
On Dec. 19, TNT will air its first NBA game free of NFL competition (Thursday NFL games are over for the season), and it will be a big test for TNT and this season’s NBA ratings story overall. It’s no surprise that TNT just announced on Dec. 17 that it will lift its planned blackout of the game locally in Los Angeles. The game is L.A. Lakers vs Milwaukee Bucks, the two top-ranked teams in the league right now. (Turner-owned NBA TV has been a bright spot this year, with viewership of those games up 5%, and NBA TV has aired a majority of the Lakers games.) If the Dec. 19 Lakers-Bucks game can’t rate well, it will be taken as an ominous indicator for the NBA.
Cable vs broadcast TV
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban believes the issue is something bigger: games airing on cable (ESPN, TNT, and Turner-owned NBA TV) vs broadcast (ABC). Cuban tweeted on Nov. 27: “Ratings are down because all of our national broadcasts are exclusively available on cable, which is losing subs daily. Football benefits from being on broadcast tv which is in every digital and traditional package along with gambling available in some of the biggest markets.”
Indeed, the NBA is locked into its contracts with ESPN and TNT through 2025, and some believe it may have been a mistake. Cuban did add, “Once it makes sense to simulcast streams in a low cost digital package, numbers will change.” NBA League Pass viewership is up this season 2% globally, with digital viewership of NBA games up 18%. By most reports, cord-cutting among young people is accelerating, not slowing, so the picture for cable is only going to get worse.
As for the injuries, Cuban tweeted, “injuries have torched our early TV sked,” but also said, “Look at the data to see how many players actually drive ratings.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver appears to agree at least partially with Cuban.
At a Sports Business Journal conference this month, Silver said pay TV has seen a 20% decline in viewership over the last four years, and said, “You’re really pushing a rock up a hill if you’ve lost 20% of your audience over the last four years, especially when that young audience that we attract is disproportionately represented by that 20%.” The NBA and its broadcast partners have since appeared to walk back Silver’s comments in their focus on injuries as the ratings dip culprit.
Silver concluded that the NBA has “no choice but to innovate right now... We may have sat around for years at these conferences saying, ‘Yes, innovate, it’s critically important, the world is changing around us.’ It now is happening.”
NBA deputy commissioner Tatum said the same in his Yahoo Finance interview: “I think we have to continue to innovate, right—I think fans evolve and change. What they're interested in changes, and so we need to continue to innovate... We're looking at certain things that we think might make sense like reducing the number of games, creating an in-season tournament... Our partners, between the Disney corporation and Warner Media, are working with us on different ways to present the games in meaningful ways.”
Of course, the NBA is not panicking yet. It’s a long season (maybe too long, an increasing number of fans say, which is why the league is looking at shortening it), and many (not all) of those injured players will return.
“There's no concern overall,” Tatum says, “about the health of the NBA."
Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.