Who needs LeBron James? Luka Doncic and Ja Morant put the NBA in a strong media position


Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies heads to the basket to shoot against the Golden State Warriors in the second half of Game 3 of the NBA Playoff Western Conference Semifinals at 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 round of media rights in the coming years. Playoff viewership grew without much participation from teams in the huge New York and Los Angeles markets. The league’s biggest star, LeBron James, is also not in the playoffs.

The public tunes in to watch the Golden State Warriors, who have returned to title contention after missing the playoffs last year. The Boston Celtics are also attracting big numbers, as the storied franchise looks to add an 18th title banner to its arena rafters. Electric young stars Ja Morant and Luka Doncic also helped bounce back NBA playoff ratings after two years of declines caused by the pandemic.

β€œThe NBA is no longer dependent on one or two teams,” said longtime sports media executive Neal Pilson. “They no longer depend on the big teams in the market. It’s a show of strength.”

The NBA Conference Finals began earlier this week on Warner Bros.-owned Turner Sports. Discovery, and on the Disney-owned ABC and ESPN networks. Thanks to early Conference Finals matchups, postseason games average 3.7 million network viewers, up 14% from 2021.

More than 6 million people watched Game 1 of the 2022 Western Conference Finals between the Warriors and Dallas Mavericks. And ESPN also reported that around 6 million viewers watched games one and two of the Celtics-Miami Heat series. The NBA uses measurements from the measurement company Nielsen for its viewership statistics.

The NBA’s $24 billion deal with ESPN and Turner ends after the 2024-25 campaign. Speculation over whether the NBA will embrace 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 promotion of young stars as a reason fans are showing interest. The Memphis Grizzlies’ Morant and Dallas’ Doncic have put the NBA in a “healthy position” for a lucrative rights deal, he said.

The popularity of the 22-year-old Morant helped lead the Memphis Grizzlies to their most-watched playoff series ever. The Grizzlies vs. Warriors series averaged 5.9 million viewers over six games. This included 7.7 million viewers who watched Game 1 – the highest rated game of the playoffs so far.

Morant has missed the final three games of the series due to injury. But he’s expected to return next season, so expect national networks to feature 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 Chase Center in San Francisco, California.

Noah Graham | NBA | Getty Images

Doncic, 23, led the Mavericks to a Game 7 win over the top-seeded Phoenix Suns on Sunday. This game averaged 6.3 million viewers and was the fifth most-watched game of the playoffs this year.

“You can put Memphis and Dallas and get an audience,” Pilson said, adding that the NBA “doesn’t depend on the Lakers and certainly not on the Knicks.”

The league will, however, be tested in the NBA Finals in June.

The NBA Finals averaged 9.9 million viewers in 2021 when the Milwaukee Bucks and their superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo defeated the Suns. That’s up from an average of 7.5 million viewers for the 2020 NBA Finals, which featured James, now 37, and the Lakers playing to an empty arena in the bubble. Orlando Covid. But that’s also down from 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 might not draw the most viewership 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 attract a sizeable following. The profile of 24-year-old Celtics top star Jayson Tatum has also grown in the playoffs.

“There are now more NBA teams that can sustain the Finals in terms of athletes and ratings than 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s a beachfront property – sport drives the TV economy. That’s why rights fees are expensive and sponsors have to pay top dollar.”

Boston Celtics goalie Marcus Smart (36) is fouled by Miami Heat forward PJ Tucker (17) during the first quarter. The Miami Heat host the Boston Celtics in Game 2 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals at FTX Arena in Miami, Florida on May 19, 2022.

Matthew J. Lee | Boston Globe | Getty Images

At the NBA’s Board of Governors meeting in April in New York, league commissioner Adam Silver said it was “premature” to consider adding new partners in the upcoming deal. rights. is now spending to show sports on its Apple 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 on traditional services transform into streaming services. And frankly, that’s where consumers are going too.”

But how the NBA bundles those rights is up in the air. Apple showed interest in getting into the sports media business when it struck a deal this spring to secure MLB rights. 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 personalization.”

Streaming platforms, he added, offer sports fans “flexibility and attributes that you might not find through conventional, satellite and cable broadcasting.”


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