ESPN programming boss Burke Magnus said that an unprecedented summer of NBA player movement should produce ratings results for the network.
“As long as we do a good job making sure we get the scheduling combinations we want, I’m very optimistic that we’ll be up,” Magnus said. That would be a welcome result for the NBA after viewership was flat-to-down in 2018–19. First, though, the league and its partners have to figure out which teams people actually want to watch.
Traditionally the NBA has started scheduling in June but it, ESPN, and WarnerMedia (owner of TNT) elected to hold off a bit this year, knowing the league could be flipped upside down when free agency opened on June 30. With nearly 10 reactionary phone calls responding to each bit of power shuffling now behind them, the final schedule is still expected in early to mid-August.
After all the movement, the Warriors and LeBron James no longer lead an attention oligarchy. Entering last year, only seven teams had 40/1 odds or better to win it all. Six of them took all 18 Saturday ABC slots (Toronto, ironically enough, being the one left out). Right now, there are 14 teams with 40/1 odds or better. Two such teams, the Clippers and Nets, combined for one appearance across ESPN and ABC last season while finishing with two of the three lowest local TV ratings in the league. Now it’s up to executives to guess just how many prime slots they deserve after adding All-Pros. How many of the 12 national games that the Knicks got in ’18–19 should their New York neighbors get instead?
There’s an argument to be made that fans are excited to watch that parity play out, to enjoy a variety of contenders for the first time in a while. There’s also a counter-argument that this league still very much belongs to its superstars, LeBron James chief among them.
Evidence supports the latter theory. Call it the King James Hypothesis. The last time the NBA had this much parity, back when six teams made the finals from 2006 through ’08, ABC entered a ratings trough. So while NBA fanatics might be enticed by Jazz-Nuggets, it will likely come on a weeknight. That, of course, still benefits ESPN, as an increase in buzzworthy teams allows for more schedule flexibility and could boost its overall audience.
Then there’s the Zion factor. After Williamson helped lift ESPN’s college hoops viewership, he will now carry New Orleans to a full TV slate if not the playoffs as a rookie. “The guy is one of those transcendent personalities,” Magnus said. “I would schedule as many Pelicans games as we can.”
After sorting out which teams deserve the most screen time, the NBA and the networks still have a dilemma on their hands as another question looms. How late will people stay up?
James’s move from Cleveland to Los Angeles “clearly impacted ratings” according to commissioner Adam Silver. The Cavs’ average evening national game in 2017–18 started at 7:49 p.m. eastern. The Lakers’ last year began at 9:41 p.m. eastern, later than just about every national NFL telecast. “It may make sense to play a little bit earlier in the West,” Silver said in May, “and that’s something we’re going to talk to our teams about this summer.”
Leonard joining the Clippers only added another megastar to the west coast. Four out of the top six MVP candidates now play in California, with nine of the top 11 playing in the western conference. Last year, western teams appeared on national TV 86 more times than their eastern counterparts. With the addition of Leonard and Williamson, that presents a particular pickle for schedule makers. Lakers and Clippers games could start at 9:30 rather than 10:30 if the night’s doubleheader starts at 7 p.m., but that could limit the ability to showcase central teams like the Rockets, Bucks and Pelicans who traditionally tip at 8 p.m.
After favoring 8 p.m. starts over 7 p.m. ones by a 5:1 margin on Wednesday doubleheaders last season, Magnus said ESPN isn’t ruling out more 7 p.m. or 7:30 tips this season. “We’re working with the league to create a group of start times that span a variety of different combinations all with an eye to maximize audience,” he said. It’s just one more piece of a puzzle that appears more complex this year, and will definitely end up being more colorful.