As Mark Twain once said, “Reports of the NBA’s death are greatly exaggerated.”
Okay, maybe that isn’t exactly what he said, but the famous phrase (which is apparently misquoted itself) certainly applies for NBA fans who believed the league was going to be in trouble after early postseason exits from its superstars.
In a year that saw LeBron James and Anthony Davis’ Los Angeles Lakers get bounced in the first round by the Phoenix Suns, and Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors get thwarted by those same Lakers and the Memphis Grizzlies in play-in games, the 2021 NBA Playoffs seem to be doing just fine.
Per Yahoo! Sports’ Ben Rohrbach, the NBA’s viewership share for this year’s postseason, which is quantified as the percentage of people with TVs in use that are watching the league’s game, “is at its highest since the league first began logging that data during the 2002-03 season.”
Yahoo! Sports also reported that the NBA holds the youngest audience across all major sports, signaling that this rise isn’t likely to slow down anytime soon.
The news likely comes across as a surprise for those who felt the league’s ratings would plummet as a result of a less-than-star-studded playoff field.
In fact, ESPN Stats & Info pointed out that this year’s Eastern Conference Finals will feature just one All-Star, Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, which is tied for the “fewest combined All-Stars in a Conference/Division/NBA Finals series since 1951 and the fewest since the 1978 NBA Finals.”
Time will tell what kinds of viewership that Eastern Conference Finals series between the third-seeded Bucks and fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks may get, especially in comparison to a closely-contested Western Conference Finals that features the Devin Booker-led Phoenix Suns and Paul George-led Los Angeles Clippers.
But, the league appears to have quite the basis to go off of as it heads into the home stretch of the 2021 postseason.
According to a release in January, the NBA’s viewership across TNT, ESPN and ABC from the start of the season through Martin Luther King Jr. Day of 2021, a span of 27 games, was up 34% vs. the same number of games a year prior.
While those numbers can partly be attributed to superstars like James, Curry, Davis, and a litany of others, it also speaks to the league’s ability to build up its younger stars on national broadcasts.
Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks, Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans, and Booker’s Suns were frequently featured on the national stage on ABC, ESPN or TNT, whether they were up against a big name like the Lakers or squaring off against each other.
The Mavericks and Pelicans were tied for the second-most nationally-broadcasted games in the entire league, more than the Antetokounmpo-led Bucks, the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving-led Brooklyn Nets, or the Kawhi Leonard-led Clippers.
The Suns landed more national games than Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers, and even Ja Morant’s Grizzlies landed some national games for the reigning Rookie of the Year’s sophomore season.
Familiarity was built up for each team’s run to the postseason, and Young became a fascinating story to follow as his fifth-seeded Hawks shocked the world en route to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Bucks.
It’ll be interesting to see if the numbers stall out at an already-high level as the 2021 postseason nears its conclusion, or if the historic jump from a viewership share perspective continues with fresh faces rising to the top of the league.
Either way, the NBA has seemingly positioned itself to stick around for years to come from a television perspective.