For the usually understated Ernie Johnson Jr. the hype was jarring.
“Welcome to a night of star-power and championship ambitions,” Johnson, playing the role of pitchman supreme, hollered Thursday night at the top of TNT’s NBA pregame show.
There was good reason for the excitement. Johnson, TNT, and the NBA actually had something to sell. With the NBA’s national viewership down double-digits across the board (TNT, ESPN, NBA TV) the Lakers-Bucks and Rockets-Clippers matchups featured the league’s brightest stars (LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, James Harden, Russell Westbrook) — and they all actually played.
Load Management took the night off.
Johnson also knew on this occasion, the NBA on TNT would not have to compete with Fox’s “Thursday Night Football.” So, Johnson, the ringmaster, had plenty of good stuff to pitch. The night also set the stage for ESPN/ABC’s annual Christmas Day/Night NBA five-game feast.
The TV suits like to believe this is the “real” start of the NBA season. This time around, they better hope so. For up to this point, viewership for the product is anemic and raising plenty of questions.
Lakers-Bucks on TNT averaged 2.8 million viewers, making it the most watched NBA game on any network this season since Opening Night on TNT.
Overall, according to the Hollywood Reporter, viewership during the first quarter of the season for the national packages is down 14% from last season (ESPN down 16%, TNT down 16%, NBA TV down 7%). Regional sports networks (like YES and MSG with the Nets and Knicks) are down 7% from 2018.
There have been plenty of excuses for the downward trend, like load management, early season competition from the NFL, not enough LBJ on national TV, and the demise of the Warriors. Another big one: Cable systems losing subscribers. None of these excuses can be definitively quantified. Yet they all sound “official” coming from the mouths of advertising executives who have infested big money in the NBA product and are hoping against hope that viewership rises — substantially.
Could eyeballs also have drifted away because of the quality and style of play? Is there oversaturation, simply too much product available on too many platforms? Is it as simple as casual fans, who juice the ratings, saying: “Call us when the playoffs start.” While these questions come from us, they are still semi-legitimate.
Then there is commissioner Adam Silver’s proposal of a midseason tournament. Yes, a tourney would generate added revenue for the NBA, but isn’t Silver’s idea also an admission that the product needs added sizzle? The proposal itself more than suggests fans need something else to watch. Something different to break up the routine and predictable nature of the regular season.
Like Christmas, when all ESPN/ABC can attempt to do is force feed viewers the NBA product and hope — and pray — several million eyeballs tune in.