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.

Already in place are a series of custom spots for Gatorade and a pair of studio promotions for Walt Disney Pictures’ Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides , as well as 20th Century Fox’s X-Men: First Class. Official NBA sponsors Budweiser and T-Mobile have also opted in for branded segments, with the beer manufacturer presenting the starting lineups and the telco branding the halftime show.

T-Mobile is also backing TNT’s “Ask Charles” segment, in which a fan can text a personal query to the Round Mound of Rebound himself. On Sunday night, Turner seemingly squeezed in another brand; a question about how often Barkley shaved his dome was answered with a pitch for the Gillette Fusion ProGlide razor.

Along with the spike one might anticipate following a torrid regular-season campaign, TNT’s playoff deliveries have been goosed by a new promotional platform: This spring marked Turner’s first go-round with CBS as a co-host of the NCAA’s March Madness tourney; as such, TNT never let college hoop fans forget it also had their ticket to the NBA tournament.

Another stroke of luck for TNT and ESPN/ABC Sports: this year’s playoffs mark the first time since 1990 that all five of the top markets (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas) will be represented in the post-season. Add hoops-crazed Boston, Indianapolis, and Miami to the mix and the playoff picture gets all the more frenzied. 

Thus far, the Disney team has put on quite a show. Through its 15-game regular-season slate, ABC boasted its biggest NBA numbers since it reacquired the rights to the league in 2002, averaging 5.11 million viewers. This season also ranks as the most-watched on broadcast TV since the 1998-89 campaign, when NBC served up 5.6 million viewers per game.

For its part, ESPN served up an historic high 2.03 million viewers over 77 games, up 29 percent from a year ago.