How we consume sports on television can be a funny thing when it comes to measuring it. Numbers are numbers, but when Nielsen releases them, context is often missing.
Television is drastically changing. Or rather, the consumption of what was once the single domain of television is changing to streaming content to PCs, smartphones, and things like Google’s Chromecast in competition for the traditional TV.
And, each sport is a different animal. As we just saw with the 2014 World Series, if there isn’t compelling games, ratings will suffer. Major League Baseball has more weight placed on compelling play, rather than stars. For the NFL, it’s practically a wash. Sure, you want a star quarterback in the Super Bowl, but ratings will always be high for the game given its exceptional event quality.
And then there’s the NBA.
Out of the Big-4 sports in North America, the National Basketball Association is the one most keenly tied to its stars. Television ratings ebb and flow with which marquee players are in the NBA Finals, more than any other.
Which brings us to LeBron James.
King James is the league’s biggest star. He is seen, not only in games, but as a pitch man for a litany of companies. How LeBron goes drives how the NBA goes.
This is a large reason why the ratings for the last two NBA Finals were so robust. There are stars on every team, but there are very few super stars that can push the needle upward like LeBron James.
The true litmus test for this has been his return to Cleveland. In no other sport could such a radical swing in fan interest be created by just one player. Ask yourself, with possibly Peyton Manning the exception, what player could go to the Indians or Browns and be so incredibly impactful at not only the gate, but on television and in the sponsorship space?
While the 2014-15 NBA season is just now underway, we’re already seeing the LeBron effect on national television ratings.
Opening Night in the NBA on TNT saw a 48 percent drop in ratings and a 49 percent drop in viewership from last year. This year saw a 1.5 rating with an average of 2.3 million for the national broadcast compared to a 2.9 rating with 4.5 million viewers last season. Why the difference? It wasn’t because it went up against a World Series game (although that certainly was a factor). It was because the Cleveland Cavaliers and King James weren’t part of the programming.
Yet, on the second night of Opening Week of the NBA on TNT, the Cavs played the New York Knicks, and ratings were, as expected, high. That game pulled a 2.6 rating with an average of 4 million viewers, up 50 percent over the comparable telecast window last season which saw the Chicago Bulls play the Knicks for a 1.8 rating with 2,643,000 million total viewers.
Just how much of an affect did LeBron’s return to Cleveland have compared to overall regular season ratings on TNT? The telecast was up 117 percent in U.S. household rating and 111 percent among total viewers compared with TNT’s average audience for an NBA regular season game last year (1.2 U.S. HH rating; 1,870,000 total viewers). The telecast – peaking with a 2.9 U.S. HH rating and 4.5 million total viewers from 10:30-10:45 p.m. – earned a 27.2 metered market rating in Cleveland and a 7.0 local rating in New York.
The Knicks/Cavs telecast also registered significant growth across all key demos including a 56 percent increase in People 18-49 and a 60 percent improvement among Men 18-49 over the same telecast window in 2013. The Cavs-Knicks game on the second night of the NBA regular season was up 116 percent among People 18-49 and 122 percent in Men 18-49 over TNT’s average demos for the NBA regular season last year.
This is both good and bad, or more correctly, adds context. Flatly looking at the numbers and saying this year or that shows overall interest or decline in the NBA does not paint the picture properly. The NBA is so tightly tied to its super stars to generate interest that who is in game, outweighs the team that is competing. Ask yourself what the ratings would have been if LeBron doesn’t go back to Cleveland and it’s the same matchup.
For the NBA and its broadcast partners, no one thing drives viewership like super stars. If the Cavaliers miss the playoffs, and let’s say, it’s the Spurs again against say, the Knicks (I’m simply using that team as it’s in the league’s biggest market with Carmelo Anthony as a star), is there little doubting that ratings will be down considerably, even with New York in the mix?
Where LeBron James goes, so goes the NBA… and the television ratings.