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TV Ratings: Why Is the NBA Shooting Air Balls?

The NBA’s TV ratings so far this season have been far from all-star level.

Viewership across ESPN, TNT and NBA TV is down 15% year-to-year overall, according to Nielsen figures. TNT’s coverage is averaging 1.3 million viewers through 14 telecasts, down 21% versus last year’s comparable coverage, while on ESPN the picture isn’t much prettier. The Disney-owned network is down 19%, averaging 1.5 million viewers versus just under 1.9 million viewers at the same stage last year.

But why have the numbers been stuffed? And do the NBA, TNT and ESPN have cause to be deflated by the drop? According to sources at all three organizations, injuries have played the biggest part.

So far this season, 63% of games on ESPN and TNT (or 22 games out of 35) were missing one or more stars missing due to injury. Eleven of the 14 games broadcast on TNT have had one or more stars missing due to injury, and 11 of the 21 ESPN games have had the same problem, per the league.

It has to be said that the list of big-name stars sat in civilian clothing instead of in uniform has been freakishly long. The most controversial absence has been that of Kawhi Leonard, the freshly-minted Los Angeles Clipper who almost singlehandedly led the Toronto Raptors to an unlikely championship victory last year. Leonard’s absence has drawn headlines because many attribute some of the games he has missed to “load management,” or rest. However, one source pointed out that the only national TV games he has missed so far have been due to “injury management” as opposed to scheduled rest.

Also on the list of absentees are Golden State Warriors stars Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, recent Brooklyn Nets acquisitions Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and Leonard’s fellow Clippers star Paul George.

Add to that the fact that number one overall draft pick Zion Williamson hasn’t played a single minute of NBA basketball yet. Excitement around the New Orleans Pelicans rookie entering the league was at fever pitch before the season, and the NBA was clearly hoping that his presence would provide a boost in ratings. Of the games on ESPN and TNT so far, six have featured the Pelicans, the second highest number for any team behind only the Clippers, tied with the Boston Celtics, and ahead of bigger teams like the Golden State Warriors.

Speaking of the team from the bay area, another contributing factor to the league’s ratings struggles has been the Warriors’ terrible performance. The Warriors currently find themselves at the very bottom of the Western Conference standings with a 4-19 record, the worst in the NBA, behind even the train wreck that is the New York Knicks. After dominating the league for the last five years and drawing heft ratings in the process, it would appear that the Warriors’ dynasty is crumbling and their ratings draw along with it.

Another potential factor behind the ratings decline is that TNT has face increased competition from a resurgent “Thursday Night Football” on Fox, and both TNT and ESPN faced more head-to-head competition with baseball’s World Series in October than in previous years.

The opening night game between the Lakers and Clippers on TNT competed directly with game 1 of the World Series, while ESPN competed with games 2, 3 and 7 later in October, after only competing with game 2 of the 2018 Major League Baseball event.

Come the business end of the season the numbers are going to improve — they always do with the NBA. Eighty-two regular season games is a lot for anyone but the most ardent fan to get through. And of course viewership on cable is down pretty much across the board. The damage caused by cord-cutting is hitting cable hard and it likely won’t stop anytime soon.

While sources say no one at the NBA, ESPN or TNT is pressing the panic button quite yet, the league has been eyeing changes for several years that it believes could boost those numbers. The biggest of which is a midseason tournament, an idea which NBA commissioner Adam Silver has reportedly been floating for several years. Such a tournament would take place between Thanksgiving and Christmas, avoiding the NCAA March Madness tournament and the NFL playoffs, and involve all 30 teams, with the hope of providing a jolt in NBA interest at a time when sports fans are usually locked in on the pig skin.

Whether or not such proposed changes, if they even happen, will give the league a much-needed ratings boost is uncertain, but what is for sure is that TNT in particular is hoping its rear-loaded broadcast schedule will restore the ratings balance later in the season.

The WarnerMedia network has only had one Lakers game so far, with 11 more to come throughout the season, as well as eight more Clippers appearances on the way.

All involved will be hoping those games rain threes in ratings terms, rather than shooting airballs.

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