NBA Playoff Ratings Slip as Casualties Mount, Casual Fans Check Out

·5 min read

A pair of weekend Game 7s did their bit to help prop up the NBA playoff ratings, but as the Conference Finals get underway, a superstar shortage threatens to scare off the casual fans that beefed up deliveries during the league’s recent boom cycle.

As expected, Saturday night’s deciding game between the Bucks and Nets drew the largest TV audience of the postseason to date, averaging 6.91 million viewers on TNT. That marks the second-highest delivery for a non-Conference Finals game on the Turner Sports net in a decade, trailing only Game 7 of the 2019 Sixers-Raptors quarterfinals (6.94 million).

According to Nielsen data, Milwaukee’s 115-111 overtime elimination of Brooklyn now stands as the NBA’s second-biggest draw of the 2020-21 season. At present, the standout remains the Christmas Day Mavs-Lakers game shared by ABC and ESPN, which drew 7.01 million viewers in the primetime Yuletide slot.

On Sunday night, TNT benefited from another win-or-go-home matchup, as the Hawks and Sixers fought for a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals in front of an audience of 6.16 million viewers. Atlanta’s 103-96 win served up the NBA’s third-highest delivery of the season.

All told, the 24 games of the Conference Semifinals averaged 4.1 million viewers, down 16% compared to the analogous round in 2019 (4.87 million). Before the weekend's TNT games helped boost the overall turnout, viewership for the second round of the playoffs was down 20% versus the comparable four series in the pre-pandemic postseason.

Since the playoffs began in Milwaukee on May 22, live coverage on ABC, ESPN and TNT has scared up an average crowd of 3.46 million viewers, down 7% versus the 3.73 million registered two years ago. While a single-digit drop counts as a win in the current media landscape (TV usage during the playoffs is down nearly 18% compared to the standard window two years prior), it’s also worth noting that the 2021 results are somewhat inflated by the addition of out-of-home viewers to the Nielsen sample.

While the out-of-home numbers are not broken out from the vanilla live-same-day ratings, research has shown that impressions from viewers in bars, restaurants, gyms and other public venues can boost the total playoff deliveries by as much as 10%.

If the NBA’s audience has been holding up fairly well thus far, the early returns from the Conference Finals may be cause for some concern. On Sunday afternoon, Phoenix’s 120-114 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers averaged 4.53 million viewers, a significant drop compared to Game 1 of the Portland-Golden State series in 2019 (7.32 million). Despite airing on ABC, which reaches some 18 million more TV homes than ESPN, the Suns-Clips opener put up middling numbers, an outcome that underscores the undeniable folly of trying to outperform the Splash Brothers.

Sunday’s game was hampered by the absence of the two biggest stars left standing in the West, as L.A.’s Kawhi Leonard was scratched by a knee strain and the Suns’ Chris Paul remained in the limbo of the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Paul is out indefinitely, while Leonard’s status is similarly uncertain. Neither player suited up for Game 2.

If the networks were already well aware that LeBron James’ early departure and the no-show Dubs would make for a challenging postseason, the subsequent loss of a phalanx of marquee talent may only make matters worse. Perhaps no Eastern Conference player will be more conspicuous by his absence than Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant, who put together one of the most dominant playoff outings in history with his Game 5 performance against the Bucks, in which he scored 49 points, hauled in 17 boards and dished off 10 assists.

Durant’s self-described “big-ass foot” inadvertently denied the Nets a ticket to the Conference Finals—his size-18 sneaker whittled a late three-pointer down to a deuce, sending Saturday’s game into OT—and the ouster of the presumptive favorites stomped on any chance at a June showdown between the country’s two largest media markets. That leaves Giannis Antetokounmpo, who reps the undersized Milwaukee area and its 837,300 TV households, as the biggest gun in the East, while the Suns’ Devin Booker has the potential to make the jump to the merch table out West.

However things shake out on the ratings front, duration is every network’s best friend. If the three remaining series go deep, Disney and Turner Sports will make a killing; according to Standard Media Index data, the total ad sales haul for the 2019 postseason was just shy of $730 million, more than a third of which ($250.7 million) was generated by ABC’s coverage of the six-game Finals. The average unit cost for the Dubs-Raptors series, which averaged 14.9 million viewers, was $671,697 per 30-second spot, which is in the neighborhood of what it costs to advertise in an NFL Wild Card Game.

Two years ago, after closing out the season with a six-game Raptors-Bucks set, TNT walked away from the playoffs with a total haul of $268.8 million in ad revenue. ESPN, which had the misfortune of hosting a Western Conference Finals sweep, took in $138.2 million in sales, while its broadcast sibling scooped up $322.1 million.

Units in this year’s Conference Finals are fetching around $260,000 a pop, according to media buyers with skin in the game. Pricing has been bolstered in part by the NBA’s outsized demo deliveries; per Nielsen, the weekend’s Game 7 telecasts averaged a 2.4 rating on TNT, or around 3.1 million adults 18-49. By way of comparison, the 73 scripted shows that aired on the Big 4 nets during the 2020-21 broadcast season delivered an average audience of 690,000 members of the under-50 set.

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