Plenty of ratings stories can be connected to an intriguing and layered backstory. The ratings for the first round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs do not fit into that group.
Sports Business Daily collected the numbers on the now-completed first round: The average viewing audience for 41 first-round games on the ABC/ESPN family of networks, TNT, and NBA TV hit 2.97 million, which marked a 14-percent decrease from the 3.47 million figure in 2014. ESPN’s specific numbers declined by 24 percent relative to last year, TNT’s by 19 percent, and NBA TV’s by 46 percent. It’s true that NBA games still won in primetime windows on cable networks 67 percent of the time (10 times in 15 nightly airings during the first round). Nevertheless, these were not slight drop-offs in viewership as a percentage of 2014’s numbers. They were quite noticeable.
Perhaps “reassuring” isn’t quite the right word for the NBA’s various broadcast partners, but there is a certain degree of comfort in knowing that the decline in ratings carries absolutely no mystery. The reason for these lower numbers is self-evident. It’s as bright as Blake Griffin’s burgeoning superstardom or the Milwaukee Bucks’ extremely promising future.
The first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs was simply spectacular. Five series went to a Game 7, creating not only more games, but more of the dramatic kinds of contests that draw in casual sports fans. Last year’s first round was quite possibly the best first round in NBA playoff history, certainly in terms of the number of Game 7s. The NBA playoffs used to feature a best-of-five first round, so the proliferation of Game 7s was not a scenario which had been seen before. It didn’t reach deeply into the past. It was new and delightfully compelling.
This year could not have been more different. Only one series fully captured the imagination of basketball fans and commentators, the genuine epic between the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers. The Golden State-New Orleans series held the promise of something special, with Anthony Davis and Stephen Curry showing their best stuff, but Golden State’s sweep prevented that series from gaining more traction or drama. All in all, only three series advanced beyond a Game 5, and in two of the three Game 6 situations, one team registered a massive blowout: Atlanta crushed Brooklyn, and Chicago (by 54 points!) obliterated Milwaukee.
That’s how low first-round viewership numbers emerge.
The NBA has seen Chris Paul, John Wall, Kevin Love, and other important players hit the sidelines in the second round. Adam Silver and TV executives can only hope that CP3 will get healthy and that the conference finals will involve the Clippers and LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers. A seven-game Memphis-Golden State series wouldn’t hurt.
April was “sweeps month” in an unfortunate and unofficial way. The NBA and its TV partners are hoping that the true “sweeps month” of May offers riveting drama on the basketball court… the kind not seen in the first round of this year’s playoffs.