Similar to other sports, the ratings for the NBA in 2021 have rebounded from 2020. Nonetheless, they were below the pre-pandemic levels. A more normal schedule is expected to return in 2021-22.
Regular Season: The NBA regular season began on December 22, just 71 days after the 2020 NBA Finals had ended (won by the Los Angeles Lakers) in “the bubble”. By comparison, the NBA offseason had lasted 113 days in 2019. The season opener was three days before the most popular regular season day of the year, Christmas. Each Christmas, five NBA games are televised on ABC/ESPN and 2020 was no exception.
The NBA announced the shortened 72-game regular season would end on May 16. As a result, the 72 games would be played in 145 days, hence, on average, each team would play a game every other night. Despite a string of injuries to All-Star players and 31 games postponed due to COVID protocols, all 1,080 scheduled games were played. The NBA had feared starting the regular season on Martin Luther King Day on January 18, would result in a revenue loss of between $500 million to $1 billion. With the pandemic, revenue during the NBA in the 2019-20 season dropped year-over-year by 15% to $8.3 billion.
The tight schedule may have led to an increase in injuries, most notably, with all-star players. Among the more notable injuries were LeBron James and Anthony Davis of the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. Davis missed two months of the regular season and James missed 26 games. Davis and James played together in just 27 regular season games. The Brooklyn Nets, considered one of the favorites to win the title, had their all-star threesome of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden play together in only eight regular season games and were on the court together just 5.8% of the time. Critics felt fewer games would have resulted in fewer injuries. On Twitter LeBron James blamed the condensed season for the influx of injured players.
Looking at ratings, there were 168 regular season games (33 were Lakers games) televised across ABC, ESPN and TNT. These games averaged 1.32 million viewers, a decline of 25% compared to the pre-pandemic 2018-19 season (1.75 million). NBA games on ESPN averaged 1.19 million viewers down 10% from 2019-20 and -25% from 2018-19. TNT averaged a slightly better 1.22 million viewers, a decline of 7% from last season and -18% from 2018-19. (The audiences for 2020 and 2021 include out-of-home viewing.) Prior to the NBA Finals, the top-rated game of the season aired on ABC/ESPN primetime on Christmas (Lakers vs. Dallas) and averaged 7.01 million viewers.
Some Dates: Television viewing and ratings are seasonal and competitive programs vary throughout the year. This was significant during the pandemic when some 2020 NBA postseason competed head-to-head with top-rated NFL games and Election news. For comparative purposes, the 2020-21 NBA regular season started on December 22 and ended on May 16. With the play-in tournament May 18-21. The 2019-20 regular season began on October 22, was suspended on March 11, resumed on July 30, ended on August 14, with a play-in game on August 15. The 2018-19 regular season started on October 16 and concluded on April 10.
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The 2021 postseason (including NBA Finals) started on May 22 and ended on July 20. The 2020 postseason began on August 17 and ended on October 10. The 2019 postseason started on April 13 and ended on June 13.
NBA Playoffs: Heading into the NBA Finals, the 73-game playoffs on ABC/ESPN/TNT averaged 3.7 million viewers. This was down 9% from the pre-pandemic 2019 playoffs but an increase of 35% from last year’s playoff games of 3.0 million. To illustrate the popularity of premium sports with viewers, during the playoffs, games on ESPN or TNT were the top-rated cable network on 37 of the 38 nights. The NBA also introduced a new wrinkle in 2020-21 with a play-in tournament involving the seventh through tenth seeded teams of both conferences.
Similar to the regular season, the playoffs were marred by a number of star players missing games due to injuries or COVID. These included; James Harden and Kyrie Irving (Nets), Kawhi Leonard (Los Angeles Clippers), Anthony Davis (Lakers), Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee), Trae Young (Atlanta), Chris Paul (Phoenix), Joel Embiid (Philadelphia), Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell (Utah) all missed postseason games. In addition, Jaylen Brown (Boston) and Jamal Murray (Denver) were hurt late in the regular season and were unavailable for the playoffs. These injuries along with the early departures of LeBron James and Steph Curry may have had an impact on ratings.
In total, the 24 conference semifinals games averaged 4.1 million viewers, a decline of 16% from 2019. As expected, the highest rated conference semifinal games were a pair of Game 7s in the Eastern Conference. The Milwaukee-Brooklyn game went into overtime and averaged 6.9 million viewers on TNT. On the following night, TNT aired Atlanta-Philadelphia which averaged 6.1 million viewers. Heading into the NBA Finals, these were the second and third highest rated games of the entire season.
For the first time since 1994 and only the second time ever, the top-seeded team in both conferences (Philadelphia and Utah) failed to qualify for the Conference Finals. The six-game Western Conference Finals (Phoenix-Los Angeles Clippers) averaged 5.4 million viewers on ESPN/ABC, a drop of 29% from 2019. The final game posted an average 5.9 million viewers, the highest of the series. The six-game Eastern Conference Finals (Milwaukee-Atlanta) on TNT averaged 4.9 million viewers, the third game was tops averaging 5.6 million viewers. The average audience for the combined conference finals were down by 20% compared to 2019.
NBA Finals: The 2021 NBA Finals involved two teams that have collectively played in only four NBA Finals with one championship. The Milwaukee Bucks (third seed in the East) defeated the Phoenix Suns (second seed in the West) in six games, winning their first title in 50 years.
The 2021 Finals on ABC averaged 9.89 million viewers, an increase of 33% from last year which averaged 7.45 million, the least watched of all-time. The 2021 audience however, was a decline of 35% from the 2019 Finals which averaged 15.14 million viewers. The audience for the 2021 Finals were comparable with the 2007 Finals (San Antonio-Cleveland) at 9.29 million and the 2003 Finals (San Antonio-New Jersey) at 9.86 million. Game 6 averaged 12.52 million viewers, the most watched game of the series and the most watched NBA game in two years.
Both Milwaukee and Phoenix entered the NBA as expansion teams in 1968-69. A coin flip deciding which team had the first pick of the 1969 draft sealed their early success. Milwaukee won the toss and selected Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) first. Phoenix picked second selected Neal Walk, who had a far less notable NBA career.
With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and fellow NBA legend Oscar Robertson, Milwaukee, in just their third season (1971), captured their first NBA championship, sweeping Baltimore. Milwaukee last played in the NBA Finals in 1974 losing to Boston. After the 1974 season, Oscar Robertson retired. The following year Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was dealt to the Lakers where he won five more NBA titles. Prior to 2021, Phoenix also appeared in two NBA Finals, losing to Boston in 1976 and to Chicago in 1993.
Here are several other fun facts about the 2021 NBA Finals:
· Since 1999 either the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors and/or Miami Heat have appeared in the NBA Finals. The four teams have won 17 of the last 22 titles (with one of them on the losing end of the other five). That four-team streak ended in 2021.
· For the first time since Milwaukee won in 1971 there was not a former NBA champion on either roster.
· After 37 straight seasons, dating back to 1984, a former teammate of Shaquille O’Neal did not play in the NBA Finals.
· For the first time since 1981 (Boston-Houston), the NBA scheduled a Finals game on Saturday night. Saturday is the lowest night of TV viewing, especially in the Summer.
· For the first time since 2010, the NBA Finals did not feature LeBron James and/or Steph Curry.
Among the 210 TV markets, Phoenix is the eleventh largest, Milwaukee ranks #37. Milwaukee is the smallest TV market to play in the NBA Finals since Oklahoma City in 2012. Phoenix last qualified for the playoffs in 2009-10, and two seasons ago had the worst record (19-63) in the Western Conference. The Milwaukee Bucks have qualified for the playoffs for five consecutive seasons.
Revenue: This was the fifth season of a nine-year $24 billion agreement ($2.6 billion per season) the NBA has with TV partners Disney and Turner. With the NFL, NHL and MLB all concluding TV negotiations in the past year, the NBA will be next. It’s been reported, NBA will be seeking a nine-year $75 billion pact when the current agreement expires in 2025. At an estimated $8 billion per season, it would be more than three times the annual cost from the current agreement. The NBA and Disney/Turner have been partners since the 2002-03 season and it has been reported the NBA would prefer to continue with these TV partnerships. The NBA also has a $1.5 billion agreement with Tencent Holdings for video-on-demand, streaming, and other connections in China.
With the popularity of premium live sports and a younger audience than the NFL and MLB, the networks charge a premium ad rate for NBA games. It is expected during the playoffs TNT and ESPN/ABC will rake in $500 million ad sales. For the NBA Finals ABC could generate $250 million in ad dollars. In addition, IEG estimates the NBA made a record high $1.46 billion in sponsorship deals with marketers including 13 new sponsors. (By comparison, the NFL earned $1.62 billion in sponsorships.)
Another revenue source has been uniform patches. It’s estimated that in total, NBA teams earned $150 million in revenue with some franchises earning upwards of $20 million in 2020-21. In addition, with sports wagering growing, in May, the NBA along with Turner and BetMGM launched NBABet. The initiative includes a weekly half-hour show on NBA TV and wagering content on NBA.com. the NBA App and social media platforms.
Global: The NBA started the 2020-21 season with 107 international players representing 41 nations. It marks the seventh season in a row, there were over 100 international players. Also, all 30 franchises had at least one international player on their roster. With a number of star players coming from overseas, viewing of NBA games in international markets has been on the rise. In the first round of the 2021 playoffs, viewing was up 13% compared to 2020. In addition, the NBA announced that globally the audience for NBA League Pass grew by 22% in the postseason compared to last year and by +28% from 2019.
Three of the five players on this year’s All-NBA first team were European; Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece), Denver’s Nikola Jokic (Serbia) and Luka Dončić of Dallas (Slovenia). Jokic and Antetokounmpo (twice) have been the recipients of the three most recent MVP awards. In addition, this year’s Defensive Player of the Year was Utah’s center Rudy Gobert (France). Gobert has won the award three times in the past four years. Giannis Antetokounmpo had won in 2019-20.
Looking Ahead: Play-in games will return in 2021-22. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver noted the play-in games made the regular season more competitive, in the final two weeks of the 2020-21 season, 24 of the 30 teams were in playoff contention. Play-in games are popular with fans, the star-studded Lakers-Golden State matchup, on ESPN, averaged 5.6 million viewers, the highest of the six play-in games. Play-in games are also a new revenue source.
Commissioner Silver doesn’t expect the NBA to expand beyond the current thirty franchises anytime soon. It had been rumored Seattle and Las Vegas would soon be added. (Both locations were recently granted NHL franchises.) The Seattle Supersonics played in the NBA from 1967 to 2008 (winning an NBA title in 1979) before becoming the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Adam Silver has also been supportive of a midseason tournament, to heighten fan interest. The model would be based on European soccer leagues and could shorten the regular season from 82 games to 78 games. Under consideration is an eight-team tournament with three single elimination rounds. Each player on the winning team would receive $1 million. Any midseason tournament will not happen until 2022-23 at the earliest.
The 2021-22 Schedule: After two years of disruption from COVID, the 2021-22 NBA season should return to normal despite another shortened offseason. Training camps will open up on September 28, the regular season starts on October 19, the playoffs begin on April 16 and the NBA Finals is set to start for June 2 with Game 7 scheduled for June 19 (Father’s Day). For 2021-22 the NBA will also have a season-long 75th anniversary celebration.