Why is NBA TV viewership up so much?

The first 325 games of this NBA season averaged attendance of 17,094. That’s better than 89 percent of capacity, and a hair better than the first 325 games of last season, which averaged 17,057.

But almost every other indicator blows those in-arena numbers away. Viewership is going a bit nuts:

  • ABC has had just three games, so it’s hard to say anything conclusive, but the audience is up five percent compared to a year ago.
  • ESPN viewership is up 23 percent.
  • TNT viewership is up 50 percent.
  • NBA TV viewership is up an insane 66 percent.
  • NBA on regional cable sports networks are up 12 percent.
  • Local over-the-airwaves broadcasts are up 36 percent.

NBA TV is particularly interesting. Five of the channel’s ten most viewed games ever have been this season, with January’s Lakers-Clippers game the most viewed game in network history.

That is from Henry Abbott, here is more.  Many people thought the strike would hurt fan interest, but apparently not.  (It did hurt my interest, but not out of any grudge; I tuned into a few early games and found them unspeakably bad in terms of quality.  By now most players seem to be in shape, although blowouts and lopsided low scores remain too common.  I believe the spread of the “team coordination” variable has increased.)  Is this a behavioral effect?  Like taking the peanuts away and making people crave them more?

Do more frequent games, in response to the strike-shortened season, spur a greater “habit formation” demand?  Do more frequent games imply that a major star is playing on TV virtually every night?  That is my hypothesis.  How will the NBA respond?

By the way, I have a longstanding custom of predicting, or rather failing to predict, the NBA championship winner each year.  This year I say it is wide open, yet to be determined, and ask me again after the trade deadline.  MLE is Miami, but a well-coordinated lesser team could knock them off, especially if they remain injury-prone.


NBA TV viewership up so much? That's easy.

The quality of all other programming is horrible, almost an embarrassment to be an American! (Just kidding of course) But it's amazing how many low-lifes dominate our (?) culture (?).

Thanks to Marginal Revolution and other quality internet, thought provoking sites. A word of caution, however, while there is far more information on the 'net', it is overwhelmed by disinformation.

What are you talking about "low-lifes"?? Generally speaking, you have a choice of Reality TV, the Kardashians, poker or UFC. Or NBA.

Can't answer the question.

Watching the game.

Is there a reason these people's tv viewing habits changed from last year? Or did the US import a lot of them last year?

It could be estrogen in the food and water supplies.

This comment makes no sense now that the post it was responding to was deleted.

BLS has taken over the measurements?

My first thought was that NBA TV had signed new deals significantly increasing its potential viewer pool, but it looks like it was on all the major cable/satellite operators by the beginning of last season.

I did not look into it in detail, but since it's just a 66-game season, I'd assume that NBA canceled the games that are least likely to be very attractive to watch (i.e. they would never cancel Celtics-Lakers game, but they would give up on Celtics-Wizards).

They can't exactly tell the Cavs and Wizards to just play 40 games while the Bulls and Heat play 90

Of course people watch the first 325 games more if they are in winter than if they are in fall.


This was my conclussion as well. They started playing around Christmas where the competition from College Football and Pro Football has already started to wane, as compared to starting at the heart of both those seasons.

What's the NBA, and why does it matter? :-)

This new surprised me. In my market (Nashville TN) very few talk about NBA, but apparently this is part of a building trend. Here's a link regarding last year's playoff surge in interest/viewership.

The NBA competes with college basketball for fan interest. The long-term trend is definitely favorable for the NBA, as more and more good players either never play college basketball or play one year. The talent level in college is much lower than it used to be relative to the NBA and good college teams are not as consistent year-to-year due to turnover. As a consequence, the most talented college teams are a mess to watch and other, less talented teams with experienced, mature players win far too many games than they deserve to win. I think this is a big factor, although it does not explain fully explain the big one-year jump in fan interest.

Players are no longer allowed to go to the NBA without spending a year in college

The rule is that players aren't eligible until 1 year after their high school class graduates. They don't have to go to college, but of course nearly all of the best ones do because there's no better way to attract the attention of scouts. A few players (including Brandon Jennings) have spent that mandatory 1-year waiting period playing professionally overseas.

That's not going to slow college turnover.

This is symptomatic of the difference between unemployment and non-participation in the workforce.

Clippers, Bulls, 76ers having good years in large markets.

Hate for Miami gives league a villain to play against.

Some great young talent in league.

Amen. We don't watch basketball -- we watch stories. In addition to those team stories (add the Lakers soap opera, and whatever is happening with the Knicks) there are some decent stars again: D Rose, D Howard to go with D Wade.

Nothing more exciting than watching guys shoot free throws. What's the least valuable thing on earth? How about a first quarter NBA score? The NBA should go to sudden death ----from the beginning. First team to score wins the game. That way they could play 50 games an evening and have a 4000 game season, not including another 1600 playoff games.

Where is the like button?

Or score like tennis and make it best out of 5 sets.

I wouldn't underestimate the power of Twitter here. A very substantial amount of Twitter buzz is driven by blacks who are the core NBA demographic.

Also, I notice in the stats in the OP that TNT is gaining viewership. I don't know how mainstream the knowledge of this is, but the dynamic between Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, and Kenny Johnson on the TNT coverage is top notch. Nothing in NFL can beat it. Very entertaining. The increase in NBA Network is attributable to it being a new venture.

Tie all of that together with the fact that the NBA has successfully reached a point where it has escaped its bad boy image and is now appealing to the upper crust. Wesley Johnson's "The Rise of the NBA Nerd" article - which Tyler linked to - has a picture of Amare Stoudemire dressed in nerd gear surrounding by some rich, white New York elites. The NBA is now at the point that it has drawn in all of these different demographics. I'd say it's sustainable for a few years.

I agree with you. The TNT crew is hilarious and they have great chemisty! Shaq is a great addition. Barkley is a very very smart and astute observer of the game and he calls a spade a spade. Just listening to him alone is worth the entry fee.

Fewer number of games means every outcome is proportionately more meaningful. This is perhaps an indication that the NBA could shorten the season, and receive better interest.

This i think is the most salient observation. I enjoy basketball, and have some very strong euphoric memories attached to post season championship runs, but with so many games in the regular season, I can't get worked up on any one game, and thereofore let most slide by.

Making what I believe to be Steve's point above more explicit - less competition with football. I believe NBA viewership always picks up as college and NFL games wind down. Sure the Super Bowl is big, but it's just one game and there are far far fewer football games on now.

In comparison, the NBA normally starts up against peak football season in past years.

Or to be clearer:
The 2010-11 season began in late October.
The 2011-12 season began on Christmas.

The first 325 games of last year were competing for eyeballs with football during peak football season (highschool, college, and pro)
The first 325 games of this year saw much less competition from football because it started after the peak football season was already over.

Right, football rules in 21st Century America and the other sports compete for leftover eyeballs.

personally, the reason i watch more NBA now is that i don't think theres ever been more talent in the league now than ever before.

i mean, the freaking clippers are a must watch team now!

Has to be related to the rise of the Bulls, Heat, and (predicted rise of) the Knicks, in that order. Unlike the Celtics, Heat and the Lakers, do you know anybody thats really a Bulls hater? Like the 90s Bulls they draw fans from across the US because they embody an almost perfect form of basketball - stifling team defense, unselfish offense, and hard team work. Unlike Kobe, Lebron and Garnett, Derrick Rose is a humble and likeable player People's hatred of the heat of coruse draws many fans. People have also forgotten how important the Knicks are to the NBA . . its been a decade since they were relevent but the fact is now they have some superstars, are big draw down at MSG and fans have high expectations for them, performance to date nonwithstanding.

If it was the predicted rise of the Knicks, viewership would be up every year.

For those of us with Time Warner, when MSG and Time Warner couldn't come to an agreement, we lost MSG, but gained a bunch of other sports channels (for a month or so). NBA TV is the channel above ESPN and ESPN2 right now for me, and if I am looking for sports on ESPN and don't like what they have, I can see NBA TV right there. I never watched NBA TV until this year, now I watch it once a week. Interestingly, NHL Network is 20 or so channels higher (but in my opinion has better programming).

That in no way explains all of the ratings increase, but those of us in the NY/NJ area have been watching a lot more NBA TV because of this.

Despite all the league's bluster during the lockout about wanting to have a superstar on every team, it's actually good for television revenues when superstars cluster in 8-10 markets, since they only ever televise that many teams nationally anyway. The televised teams change from year to year depending on who's exciting to watch (I live in Arizona, don't have League Pass, and I've seen Minnesota play twice this year!), but in any given season there are about 8-10 teams that show up regularly on TNT, ABC, or ESPN. It's good for viewership when those 8-10 teams have basically all the star players - as a fan, you get more for your time and money when you can see Lebron, Wade, Bosh, Paul, and Griffin in a single game. Two years ago, you would have had to watch a minimum of three games, and as many as five, to see all those players play.

I'm watching more NBA because the near lockout made me realize how much I took the games for granted and how much I love the NBA. Also, there are tons of amazing players right now and this time's Olympic team will be the greatest ever. Lots of great story lines.. the hated Miami heat with Mr. Three quarters, OKC Durant-Westbrook Barksdale-Stringer Bell situation, Kobe defying father time, Kevin Love and Rubio creating magic and Finally.. Lob City!!!!! Those guys are amazing.. must watch, you don't wanna look away even for a second. This season has the potential to be great!

A combination of American Idol and the GOP debates.

Last season the games started in November, when it was sweeps month. This season they started in late December, when all the networks are doing re-runs.

Don't believe the arena numbers. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported a while ago that the NBA has “A strict league wide policy of announcing tickets distributed, including comps. It refuses to release turnstile counts.”


1. Lob City
2. I Hate Lebron Club
3. Super Knicks (or not)
4. Shaq in the studio
5. Ricky Rubio

I have no answer to Tyler's question, but my question is what will the effect of Chinese NBA viewing be, and how much has it increased? It seems to be huge there. When I was there I watched it on CCTV and when I sopke to people there most of them had only heard of my home-state (Minnesota) because of the Wolves, and especially Kevin Garnett. (Nobody mentioned Rubio.)

I'm confused. They are playing fewer games this year, no? Why wouldn't there be an increase in per-game numbers from the contracted total supply of games?

Also, wasn't it a lockout and not a strike? That probably doesn't make any substantive difference, but it framing it one way when it is the other may be something of a Freudian slip.

Easy, the NBA made a strategic decision to move itself away from other sports (mainly the 800lb Guerilla that is football).

I think this will be a temporary spike in viewership, mainly because of other sports are taking this approach and will start crowding out the NBA on Television (like the UFC being on FOX weekends now).

Five years from now, the NBA will be in 5th place in sports viewership, with the NFL and College football being at the top, NASCAR and MLB in 3rd and 4th, and the UFC in 6th.

MLE != mode of a distribution.

Easy answer: The normal NBA schedule is too long and overlaps with too many other sports. (Baseball also has this same problem.) By having so many games, you reduce the importance of each individual game, making it less and less important for an individual to "invest" in by viewing it. Part of the reason Football is so successful is that there's only one game a week, and those individual games matter. The heavily physical nature of the game prevents the owners from running it into the ground, and thus propels its success.




Parity. Somebody other the Lakers will win this year.

NFL seems to be up, too. I think HD has really changed the dynamic for sports in a way that was hard to predict. Watching a spectacular catch or great move in HD is just a whole different thing than seeing it in standard.

What's really be amazing is how much worse the Lakers are without Phil Jackson. Bynum goes 20-20, Kobe has 28, Pau gets a double-double, and they still lose to a meh New Jersey team. Crazy.

Bulls, led by Brian Scalabrine, look to be the best team so far, sitting at 21-6 despite playing 17 of 27 games on the road and losing not just starters but D-Rose for significant lengths of time. This could be their year, though the Heat will be tough.

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