During an NBA season in which typical big stories (Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, New York Knicks) have receded from national attention, television viewers have lost a little bit of interest. Though the drop-off has been leaguewide, it's particularly notable that local TV ratings are down for several of the league's biggest markets as well.
According to SportsBusiness Daily's John Ourand and John Lombardo, only the Golden State Warriors and Dallas Mavericks improved ratings among the eight largest markets:
The NBA's three biggest media markets posted significant drops in local TV viewership this season, with the five clubs in those markets shedding a combined 259,000 homes per game from last year. Those losses for the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls highlight a story line for the NBA that saw the league heading into the final days of its regular season last week on pace to post audience declines in six of its eight biggest markets.
The Oklahoma City Thunder led the league in ratings for the second straight season, while the New York Knicks had the largest average audience size despite experiencing a steep ratings decline.
The Indiana Pacers and Phoenix Suns boasted the largest ratings increases.
The success of smaller markets begs the question: Is the face of the league changing?
Take the much-improved Washington Wizards as an example. Back in February, The Washington Post's Dan Steinberg broke down how the team's improved ratings still weren't nearly enough to situate it among the league's best:
Through the all-star break, Wizards broadcasts on Comcast SportsNet and CSN+ were averaging a 1.03 rating in the Washington TV market, good for an average of about 25,000 homes, via SportsBusiness Journal's John Ourand.
Now, there are a couple ways to look at that number. On the one hand, it's up 24 percent from last year at this time, and a whopping 34 percent from last year's final ratings number. That's a pretty sizable year-to-year increase, and in fact, it's the ninth-biggest increase in local TV ratings among NBA teams.
On the other hand, the Wizards still have the sixth-lowest TV ratings and the sixth-lowest average audience of the 27 NBA teams SportsBusiness Journal reported on. (The ratings for Memphis, Utah and Toronto are not included.)
Smaller-market teams are surely but very slowly closing the gap with their larger cohorts.
Even with their ratings declines, the Knicks and Lakers continue to have the largest local television audiences. The Chicago Bulls rank a solid fourth. Los Angeles and Chicago should see ratings increases next season as stars Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose return from serious injuries. Should the teams establish themselves as legitimate contenders, even better ratings will follow.
Meanwhile, the Knicks are banking on new president of basketball operations Phil Jackson to turn things around. Jackson recently fired head coach Mike Woodson in what Bleacher Report's Howard Beck described as "just the beginning" of impending changes.
The organization is counting on Jackson to re-establish interest around the club after a disappointing season. It might not happen right away, but the franchise's medium- to long-term future is brighter than it's been in some time.
For the moment, though, there's slippage. Only time will tell whether national viewing patterns will follow suit in what's shaping up to be an outstanding postseason. The Lakers and Knicks' absences could take their toll, but fans would be wise to remain tuned in.
No matter the market size, the matchups in these playoffs aren't to be missed.