TNT, ESPN/ABC Draw Record NBA Ratings

Big audiences also mean record revenue for league's TV partners

The New York Knicks may have come up short in their attempt to win their first playoff game in 10 years, but for NBA rights holder TNT, Sunday night’s 87-85 nail biter was an unequivocal victory.

According to Nielsen, 5.99 million fans watched the first game of the New York-Boston series, giving TNT a 53 percent lift from the comparable NBA playoff game a year ago. All told, the April 17 triple-header marked the most-watched post-season opener in Turner’s 27 years as a league partner, drawing an average 4.54 million viewers.

The Grizzlies-Spurs, Knicks-Celtics, and Nuggets-Thunder menu outdrew last year’s three-game set on TNT by 36 percent, or 1.21 million viewers. This after the Turner network posted its best NBA regular-season ratings in its history, averaging 2.45 million viewers, a 30 percent leap from its second-best showing, which coincided with Michael Jordan’s comeback season in 1995-96.

By all accounts, this has been the most memorable NBA season in a generation, but with a possible lockout looming on the horizon, memories may be all fans have left after the last of the confetti is swept away. If the league and the NBA Players’ Association don’t hash out a new collective bargaining agreement in 70 days, pro hoops will join the NFL as the second sports titan to close up shop in 2011.

In the face of lingering economic discrepancies—despite robust attendance, merchandise sales and TV ratings, the league says it will lose $300 million this year, a claim the NBAPA just isn’t buying—it’s business as usual for the rights holders. “We’re writing deals for the fourth quarter,” said Jon Diament, Turner Sports evp, ad sales and marketing. “We are not anticipating a lockout, no.”

While that may prove to be a case of wishful thinking, you can’t blame Diament for wanting to forge ahead into next season. At the All-Star break, he said TNT had grown its NBA ad sales revenue by 30 percent from the previous season. (When taken together, TNT and ESPN/ABC Sports bring in an estimated $1 billion in NBA ad sales dollars.)

Because TNT’s ratings were so high throughout the regular season, the network had no audience deficiency units to fork over in the playoffs. As a result, the network gets to hold out some scatter units for a tidy premium.

“There are still some pockets of opportunity available for marketers looking to reach those 18-49 and 18-34 demos,” Diament said, adding that he has one final custom sponsorship remaining to offer. Clients can pony up to take part in a new freeze-frame segment in which TNT mouthpiece Chris Webber is virtually inserted into the on-court action; given enough lead time, all sorts of integrations and brand treatments may be worked out.

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