ABC, ESPN, and TNT saw NBA viewership decline slightly in the 2016-17 regular season, the first covered under a multi-billion-dollar contract extension between the league and its television partners that reaches through 2024-25.
National NBA telecasts across the three channels and cable network NBA TV averaged 1.19 million total viewers for the season ending on Wednesday — down 6% from the 2015-16 season, but even with the average from 2014-15. Under a new television deal, the three networks combined to broadcast 19 more games than last season.
The addition of more than a dozen and a half games — including 11 Monday-night games on TNT, which did not have a Monday-night telecast in 2015-16 — contributed to the downward tick in viewership. TNT, for example, averaged 1.5 million viewers, down 8% from last season. But when discounting the new Monday-night games, TNT was even with last season’s 1.7 million. (The additional games far outpaced the entertainment programming that TNT aired on comparable Monday nights last season.) Disney-owned ESPN and ABC averaged 1.9 million viewers, down 5% from last season, when they aired eight less games combined.
Increases in streaming viewership also contributed to television decreases. ESPN digital platforms averaged 45,000 viewers per minute, up 18% from 38,000 last season.
The 6% decline across networks was also in line with a general downward trend in live sports viewing, one that was compounded by last year’s presidential election campaign and the subsequent news cycles, which drove eyeballs to cable news programming. Viewership for the NFL, which has become accustomed to regular year-to-year growth, was down 8% in 2016 from the previous season. Network executives have also groused about the impact of NBA teams resting star players in late-season games — and removing the top attractions from telecasts.
Under a new contract that went into effect this season, ESPN, which produces the ABC telecasts, and TNT are paying a combined $2.66 billion per year to broadcast NBA games.
Heading into the playoffs, which begin Saturday, league and network officials can draw encouragement from high ratings for the NBA’s premiere regular-season events, including opening night and All-Star Game telecasts that were the most watched since 2013.