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Zion Williamson’s Pelicans Debut Is a Ratings Slam Dunk

With ratings in a slump so far this season, the NBA has needed someone to come off the bench and ball out. Cue the New Orleans Pelicans debut of Zion Williamson.

The much-heralded number 1 pick from the 2019 draft had sat out the first 44 games of the Pelicans’ season with a knee injury, but last night, he announced himself on basketball’s biggest stage in style, and viewers tuned in to watch.

Wednesday’s game may have ended in a narrow 121-117 defeat for the Pelicans against the San Antonio Spurs, but the victory really went to ESPN, as it delivered its highest-rated non-Christmas game so far this season (tied with the Lakers vs. Mavericks encounter from Nov. 1) with a cable-topping 1.0 rating among adults 18-49.

Williamson’s dominant presence propelled the game to 2.36 million total viewers, which represents an 88% increase in viewership versus last year’s comparable game, peaking at around 2.8 million viewers.

For comparison, the average viewership for ESPN games so far this season has been 1.48 million viewers, while Pelicans games on the Disney-owned network were averaging 1.53 million viewers prior to last night. That number is now 1.65 million, and with four more Pelicans games to come, including an eye-catching matchup with the LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers on March 1, the network is hoping that number might jump even higher.

The Lakers, who are running away with the Western Conference and have the second best record in the NBA, are averaging 1,918,000 viewers across their games on ESPN.

After struggling to find his rhythm in the first three quarters, Williamson took over the game in the fourth, scoring 17-straight points and almost leading the Pelicans to an unlikely comeback.

While the numbers from last night’s game don’t come close to the Christmas Day bonanza between the Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers, which drew a whopping 8.8 million viewers across both ESPN and ABC, if Williamson continues to sink threes and stays healthy, the numbers will start looking a lot rosier not only for ESPN, but also for TNT and NBA TV.

Several sources who spoke with Variety about the NBA’s ratings woes back in early December pointed to the absurdly long list of injured superstars as one of, if not the main reason behind the league’s struggles. Williamson was at the top of that list, with many pundits labeling him a generational talent who had the potential to be a box office ratings attraction.

Per ESPN, its audience for the 2019-2020 season is still down 15% at this stage in comparison with last, but more Lakers wins and more games featuring Zion Williamson storming into the paint might just still be able to salvage the NBA’s whole season.

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