Rise in NBA Local Market Viewership Surpasses Last Year's Figures

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NBA viewership in local television markets has surpassed last season's numbers as of the All-Star Break, with executives from Playfly Sports attributing the increase to the fall's In-Season Tournament, which helped energize individual fan bases early in the regular season.

According to the Nielsen Station Index, which measures the audience for 27 NBA teams across 25 local U.S. markets, 18 franchises have seen an increase in linear TV viewership compared to last year through the same number of games (through Feb. 6). The NBA champion Nuggets, whose local Altitude RSN had a low viewing base last season due to a dispute with Comcast, saw the largest percentage increase in local viewership this season with a rise of 139%. They are followed in the top 5 by the Timberwolves (a 107% rise on Bally Sports North), the Suns (94% on free over-the-air Arizona's Family), the Magic (76% on Bally Sports Florida), and the Spurs (54% on Bally Sports Southwest).

"Twice as many teams are up in NBA over being down,'' said Playfly Sports President Craig Sloan. "That's not normally the case. It should be 50-50 -- somebody's winning, somebody's losing. Usually, interest will wane in markets where a team's losing, and the others will go up. But having two-thirds of your teams in positive growth is a good story. ... If you look at it, the local market part of the ecosystem is really strong.''

The metrics continue to demonstrate the value of local broadcasts, while Nielsen data indicates that the In-Season Tournament is the driving force behind the surge in local ratings.

According to Nielsen, in the 25-to-54 demo, the average audience for the 20 teams Nielsen monitors weekly significantly increased as soon as the In-Season Tournament tipped off in early November. During the first week of the regular season, prior to the In-Season Tournament, ratings were down 3% from the previous year at the same time. Once the In-Season Tournament began in Week 2, the numbers increased by 1%, then by 3% in Week 3, and reached a high mark of 8% in Week 4. Through this past weekend’s All-Star Game, ratings had been up no lower than 5% over last season, with no signs of slowing down as the playoff races approach. Those 20 teams are the Suns, Timberwolves, Knicks, 76ers, Nuggets, Celtics, Lakers, Clippers, Hawks, Magic, Rockets, Kings, Mavericks, Heat, Pistons, Cavaliers, Wizards, Bulls, Warriors, and Nets.

"What our analysis found is that the In-Season Tournament weeks saw an uptick, and that carried over to a halo effect for every week since,'' said Playfly Head of Research Gregg Liebman. "This is just on linear TV and doesn't even account for any streaming versus last year. But we're talking about over 900 games into the season that have aired across these RSNs [and over-the-air channels], and it reinforces that much of the viewing is happening not on the national games but is happening on a daily basis through these regional sports members.''

Analytics from individual teams such as the Wizards, who are not even having a stellar season, support the relevance of local television. Linear broadcasts of Wizards games on Monumental Sports Network are down 35% from last season but are still outperforming head-to-head programming in the D.C. market on FS1 94% of the time, ESPN2 85% of the time, TNT 74% of the time, and TBS 51% of the time.

Sloan said 100 new brands have invested in local NBA telecasts this year -- though only 10 have invested significantly in the seven or eight-figure range -- which he said shows the league seems "team-driven'' more than just star-driven.

"When you see 100 new brands in our portfolio -- and it can be small [investments], could be $100,000 or $500,000 -- that's not going to make news,'' Sloan said. "But it's interesting just to see that volume of new brands coming in. So we're happy on that front. Our revenues are up year over year, which is good in a down market.''

Advertisers should be heartened, Sloan said, that new data from TVision -- a company that relies on computer vision technology to identify whether selected viewers are paying attention to ads -- shows that viewers watched commercials on their local NBA broadcasts 55.6% of the time last season compared to 54.8% of the time during national playoff telecasts. Playfly’s sense is that the regular season is more of a "rooting experience'' that locks viewers in, whereas the playoffs (except for the markets of the two teams playing) are more of a "viewing'' experience.

"[A national game] might be huge in two markets,'' Sloan said. "But it actually proves out to be better [in the regular season]. People are into it during the regular season. There has been a common prevailing thought that the regular season in the NBA doesn't matter. ... But it's just not playing out that way in reality.''