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Put a number on 
NBA's broadcast days

So it seems, with fewer games and low ratings

By Toni Fitzgerald

    The NBA tips off the season this week on ESPN and TNT. It will be almost two months before any games reach broadcast television, where regular-season games averaged an all-time low last year.
   But with ESPN and TNT both recording regular-season and postseason ratings increases last year, it seems to beg the question: Does the NBA have a future on broadcast? Or is the once-mighty sport better off becoming more of a cable exclusive?
   Nothing like that will happen for at least four more years, when ABC’s current deal runs out. But it’s an interesting question to ponder, especially if regular-season viewing for ABC continues to dip at a rapid pace.
   Basketball’s broadcast expiration began long before ABC acquired NBA rights two years ago, but it has sped up since then. Last year featured the second-fewest regular-season NBA broadcasts since 1989-’90, 16, and they averaged a record-low 2.2 household rating.
   That was down 14 percent from the average rating from the previous season, when ABC showed only 12 broadcasts, and down 24 percent from 2001-’02's average rating, when NBC showed 31 games.
   Regular-season broadcast ratings have decreased or remained level every year since 1994-’95, when they averaged a 5.0. The league has half the average viewers it did back then, just after Michael Jordan’s first retirement.
   Although last season’s NBA finals rebounded from the previous year’s record-low average, they were still the third-lowest-rated in history, averaging an 11.5 rating.
   But on cable it was a different story. ESPN, ESPN2 and TNT all posted year-to-year increases in their regular-season household averages, with TNT and ESPN both averaging better than a 1.1.
   Equally important, all three increased year-to-year in the NBA’s target demo of men 18-49, where ABC’s broadcasts were down nearly 15 percent. Several playoff games on TNT were also among the most-viewed basketball games in cable history.
   ABC still averages a higher household rating than the cablers for the games, but not by all that much.
   But no matter where the games air, there is another serious problem facing the NBA. And ABC can’t do anything about this one.
   The league suffers from a serious image problem. The squad of NBA all-stars representing the U.S. in the Olympics barely captured bronze, Kobe Bryant’s rape trial began and ended under bizarre circumstances, and Kobe and former teammate Shaquille O’Neal did their best Bush-Kerry imitation in a war of ugly words. Most recently Carmelo Anthony, last year’s co-rookie of the year, was busted for marijuana possession last month.
   With all that bad publicity and a dull defending champ in defensive-focused Detroit, will regular-season basketball stop its nine-season decline on broadcast television?
   It seems doubtful. Matching last year’s cable numbers and preventing another decline on ABC would be a relative victory for the NBA. More ratings slides would be yet another embarrassment the league doesn’t want to deal with right now.
   In other sports ratings, NBC’s coverage of the Subway 500 last weekend averaged a 4.4 household rating, up 10 percent versus last year’s 4.0. The average rating for the network’s Chase for the Cup races has increased 4 percent compared with last year to a 4.7.

NETWORK SPORTS
Ranked on Households
Week Ending Oct. 24

# PROGRAMS Net

Episode

Households

Persons 2+

US Rtg%

Shr

(000)

(000)

1

FOX MLB
 ALCS GAME
7(S)-10/20

FOX

BSTON 
AT YANKS

19.4

30

21277

31460

2

FOX WORLD
SERIES GAME
2(S)-10/24

FOX

ST LO. AT
BSTON

15.9

24

17390

25463

3

FOX MLB
ALCS GAME
6(S)-10/19

FOX

BSTON 
AT YANKS

15.6

25

17150

25088

4

FOX WRLD
SERIES GAME
1(S)-10/23

FOX

ST LO. AT
BSTON

13.7

25

15029

23168

5

FOX NFL 
SUN.-NAT

FOX

VAR. TEAMS
AND TIMES

13.5

25

14784

20548

6

FOX MLB
 NLCS GAME
7(S)-10/21

FOX

HSTON
 AT ST LO

13.0

20

14285

19808

7

FOX MLB
ALCS GAME
5(S)-10/18

FOX

 YANKS AT
BSTON

11.3

19

12353

17798

8

FOX MLB
 NLCS GAME
5(S)-10/18

FOX

ST LO. AT
HSTON

9.8

17

10791

14982

9

CBS NFL
SINGLE

CBS

VAR.
TEAMS
AND TIMES

9.7

22

10677

15171

10

NFL MON.
 NIGHT FTBLL

ABC

TAMPA
AT ST. LO

7.7

13

8427

11506

11

FOX NFL
SUN REG

FOX

VAR.
TEAMS
AND TIMES

7.2

16

7933

10579

12

FOX MLB
 NLCS
GAME 6
(S)-10/20

FOX

HSTON
 AT ST LO

7.0

15

7712

10255

13

O.D.
MRTNSVLE
(S)10/24

NBC

NSCAR:
NEXTEL

4.4

10

4811

6820

14

ABC CLLG
FTBL 
GM-LATE

ABC

VAR.
TEAMS
AND TIMES

4.2

10

4567

5911

15

WWE
SMCKDWN!

UPN

 

3.2

5

3462

4577

16

HOME DEPOT
 CLLG FTBLL2

CBS

ALA. AT
TENN

2.6

6

2843

3774

17

NOTRE DAME 
FTBALL

NBC

BC AT
ND

2.1

5

2256

2827

18

NBC SPORTS
SPEC 10/24(S)

NBC

US OPEN
SUPER
CROSS

1.8

4

2020

2958

19

SKATE AMER.
10/24(S)

ABC

 

1.5

4

1638

2137

20

CBS SPORTS
 SPECT.-SU

CBS

ARETE
HONORS 

1.5

3

1655

2109

21

FUNAI CLASSIC
AT WDW(S)-10/24

ABC

 

1.2

3

1295

1532

Source: Nielsen Media Research
  


Nov. 1, 2004 2004 Media Life


 - Toni Fitzgerald is a staff writer for Media Life.


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