Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, Warriors put the NBA in a strong media rights position

Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies drives to the basket to shoot against the Golden State Warriors during the second half of game three of the Western Conference Semifinals of the NBA Playoffs at the Chase Center on May 07, 2022 in San Francisco, California.

Thearon W Henderson | Getty Images

The NBA is in a strong position as it recovers from the pandemic and prepares for its next media rights cycle over the next few years. Playoff viewership soared in the huge markets of New York and Los Angeles with little participation from teams. Even the league’s biggest star, LeBron James, isn’t in the playoffs.

Viewers tune in to see the Golden State Warriors return to the title fight after missing the playoffs last year. The Boston Celtics are also pulling in big numbers as the legendary franchise looks to add an 18th title banner to its arena rafters. Electric youngsters Ja Morant and Luka Doncic have also helped the NBA’s playoff ratings rebound after two declining years caused by the pandemic.

“The NBA is no longer dependent on one or two teams,” said longtime sports media executive Neal Pilson. “They are no longer dependent on big market teams. That’s a show of strength.”

The NBA’s conference finals began earlier this week on Warner Bros. Discovery’s Turner Sports and Disney-owned ABC and ESPN networks. With the early matchups of the Conference Finals, postseason games reach an average of 3.7 million viewers across networks, a 14% increase compared to 2021.

More than 6 million watched the first game of the 2022 Western Conference Finals between the Warriors and the Dallas Mavericks. And ESPN also reported that around 6 million viewers watched the first and second games of the Celtics-Miami Heat series. The NBA uses metrics from the measurement company Nielsen for its attendance statistics.

The NBA’s $24 billion deal with ESPN and Turner will end after the 2024-25 season. Speculation as to whether the NBA will bet on streaming services in the next round of deals.

The league will have a strong hand to play in large part because of its young stars.

Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports, pointed to the NBA’s team balance and nurturing of young stars as reasons for fan interest. The Memphis Grizzlies’ Morant and Dallas’ Doncic put the NBA in a “healthy position” for a lucrative rights deal, he said.

22-year-old Morant’s popularity helped propel the Memphis Grizzlies into their most-watched playoff series of all time. The Grizzlies series against the Warriors averaged 5.9 million viewers over six games. That included 7.7 million viewers who watched the first game — the highest-rated playoff game to date.

Morant missed the final three games of the series through injury. But he’s expected to return next season, so expect national networks to show more Grizzlies games.

Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks handles the ball during Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Finals on May 18, 2022 at the Chase Center in San Francisco, California.

Noah Graham | NBA | Getty Images

The 23-year-old Doncic led the Mavericks to a game seven win over the top-seeded Phoenix Suns on Sunday. This game averaged 6.3 million viewers and was the fifth most-watched game in the playoffs that year.

“You can put Memphis and Dallas on and you can get an audience,” Pilson said, adding that the NBA is “not dependent on the Lakers and certainly not the Knicks.”

However, the league will be tested during the NBA Finals in June.

The NBA Finals averaged 9.9 million viewers in 2021 as the Milwaukee Bucks and their superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo defeated the Suns. That’s more than an average of 7.5 million viewers for the 2020 NBA Finals, which saw James and the Lakers play to an empty arena in the Orlando Covid bubble. But it’s also way down compared to the 15.1 million viewers who watched the 2019 NBA Finals featuring the Warriors and Toronto Raptors.

Of the remaining teams, a Heat Mavs final may not draw top viewers like a Celtics Warriors or Celtics Mavs series. But Pilson said the remaining star players, including Warriors superstar Stephen Curry, would still be enough to draw a sizable crowd. The profile of Celtics star Jayson Tatum, 24, has also grown this postseason.

“There are now more NBA teams that can support the Finals in terms of athletes and ratings than there were 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s a beachfront property – sport drives the television economy. Therefore, rights fees are expensive and sponsors have to pay large sums of money.”

Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart, 36, is fouled by Miami Heats forward PJ Tucker, 17, in the first quarter. The Miami Heat hosts the Boston Celtics in Game 2 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on May 19, 2022 at the FTX Arena in Miami, FL.

Matthew J Lee | Boston Globe | Getty Images

At the NBA’s Board of Governors meeting in New York in April, league commissioner Adam Silver said it was “premature” to consider adding new partners to the next rights deal show TV+ service.

“The discussions we’re having now are more about forecasting and where the media market is going,” Silver said. “I think we’re going to continue to see a lot of those rights that have historically been with traditional services move to streaming services. And frankly, consumers are going there too.”

But how the NBA will package those rights is up in the air. Apple showed its interest in getting into the sports media business when it struck a deal to land the MLB rights this spring. Amazon is already in business with the NBA as it streams WNBA games.

“I think that’s the direction the media is going in this country,” Silver said. “People want personalization. They want customization.”

Streaming platforms, he added, offer sports fans “flexibility and features that you might not find in traditional satellite and cable transmission.”

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