May 1, 2019

April Madness – A Peek into Round 1 NBA & NHL Playoffs

An early look into the NBA and NHL playoff ratings tells two divergent stories: Viewership for the first round of the NBA playoffs was down 19% versus 2018, whereas NHL viewership was up 1% overall and up 18% on non-network coverage. The trends in playoff viewership loosely mirror the regular season ratings for each sport, with the NBA ratings down 5% and the NHL up 2% when compared to 2018.

While the NHL experienced ratings at seven-year highs for early playoff games, the NBA experienced viewership declines in 27 of the 32 games broadcast in round one. In fact, viewership of the Pacers-v-Celtics game (airing opposite the final round of the Masters Golf Tournament was down 44%). Later that evening, the repeat airing of the Masters had more viewers than the live telecast of the Blazers-v-Thunder playoff game.

What do these early playoff ratings tell us about the future of televised sports?

Viewership Trends

As noted, NBA viewership for the finals grew 1% over the past eight years but experienced a 13.8% decline last year. If current round-one trends hold, the NBA is in for an unpleasant playoff season. Over the same 8-year period, the NHL has seen a 7% growth in viewership, but since 2015 has declined by 12.5%. Simply put, there is a lot of volatility in the viewership numbers, and selecting 1-2 years for analysis does not necessarily foreshadow a trend.

Explaining the Poor NBA Ratings
The obvious fact is that viewership in round one of the NBA playoffs was poor. However, taking a closer look, the ratings drop is likely a confluence of events that are more an exception than an omen of bad things to come. Here’s why:

  • Poor Matchups – Round one of the NBA playoffs was uninspiring to say the least. All of the higher-seeded teams won their series, and only one round went to a game seven, while two of the eight series were 4-0 sweeps. Finally, there were several games that were blowouts, limiting fan engagement.
  • Tough Outside Competition – Round one of the playoffs pitted NBA games against probably the greatest and most compelling Masters golf tournament in History. The playoffs also had to compete against the highly promoted NFL draft, that saw 11.0 million viewers vs. the NBA who managed to generate 1.8 million viewers in the game airing at the same time.
  • The LeBron Factor – Love him or hate him, LeBron James is the NBA’s biggest star. As the most marketed, and arguably the best player in the league, not having LeBron in the playoffs is obviously playing a role in the lower viewership.
  • Other Star Power – The NBA prides itself on marketing its top players, and the playoffs should be a coming out party for some of the bright young NBA talent. However, without competitive games, these young stars do not have an opportunity to excel, or be a foil to vanquish their foes, thus resulting in less engaged fans.
  • No New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, or Chicago Bulls – With apologies to the Brooklyn Nets and LA Clippers who actually play in New York and Los Angeles, the most-popular teams in the biggest cities did not make the playoffs. Instead, teams like Milwaukee, Orlando, Utah, and Oklahoma City are represented in the playoffs.

Explaining the Great NHL Ratings
With headlines like “Highest Ratings in 7 Years” or “Most-Watched on Cable in 25 Years,” it would seem that the round one of the Stanley Cup Playoffs may a harbinger of great things to come for a league that has struggled mightily to grow viewership. Then again, on closer look, the ratings increase is likely a confluence of events that are more an exception than a harbinger of great things to come. Here’s why:

  • Great Games – Highly competitive games (including three seven-game series and 10 overtime matches), great individual and team story lines (including epic failures by top teams) have led to increased viewer engagement and higher ratings.
  • New Measurement Methodology – NHL viewership is now measured in terms of TAD (Total Audience Delivery). Unlike prior year viewership numbers, TAD counts streaming in audience numbers, making the already-strong numbers appear stronger.

There is no doubt that the 2019 playoff season has been kind to the NHL and not so kind to the NBA. We expect that the NHL’s ratings to come off of their seven-year highs, especially because the number of overtimes and game-7s statistically cannot continue. On the NBA front, things should improve, as the games should be more compelling if only due to the likelihood of big stars and better teams facing off against each other. Also, the games will be more interesting because all of the remaining teams have a path to the championship, which will lead to greater drama between the foes. Below is a chart of the matchup fears and hopes for each league:

A 20-year veteran media executive, Rob Silvershein’s success in today’s competitive media environment is a direct result of his unique experiences spanning traditional, emerging, and startup media platforms. He is an accomplished strategist and spends most of his time advising media companies on how to structure themselves for long term success. He currently lives in Manhattan Beach, CA.

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