LeBron James may be cooling his heels in the Maldives, but the absence of the NBA’s biggest superstar hasn’t put the freeze on the league’s playoff ratings, which are currently at a four-year high.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs averaged 3.48 million viewers across TNT, ABC and ESPN, which marks the strongest performance since 2018. While King James is off somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean, kicking it on a WaveRunner and shilling for his Lobos 707 tequila brand, Steph Curry is doing his level best to debunk the notion that the NBA lives or dies on the exertions of the big man from Akron.
The $6 billion Warriors’ return to the playoffs after two-plus years of plague and catastrophic injuries has lit up the Nielsen dials, while back East, the Celtics did their part by way of their brisk dismantling of the Nets. Boston’s sweep of Brooklyn averaged 4.83 million viewers, topping the five-game Warriors-Nuggets set by some 563,400 viewers while earning bragging rights as the most-watched opening-round series since 2016.
Impressions were distributed proportionately across the broadcast and cable nets, with ABC averaging 4.56 million viewers over the course of its first five games, while ESPN (3.35 million) edged TNT by a negligible 60,000-viewer margin. All told, the Disney nets were up 17% versus 2021 and improved nearly 20% compared to 2019, while TNT saw its first-round impressions grow 13% and 18%, respectively.
Thus far, all of this comes as welcome news to NBA advertisers, who in the most recent upfront bazaar paid premiums of 20% or more versus the year-ago rates for in-game playoff inventory. For the networks, those rate hikes could add up to a fortune; if the stars are all aligned (read: the Warriors advance to the Finals and a handful of late series go the full seven games), postseason ad revenue should easily eclipse the $800 million mark.
Brooklyn’s early exit may have ramifications down the road—accounting for 6% of all TV residences, the country’s largest media market boasts 7.45 million linear- and connected-TV homes—but the Warriors’ audience has expanded massively in the early stages of the conference semifinals. On Sunday afternoon, Golden State’s 117-116 victory over Memphis averaged 7.71 million viewers, which now stands as the biggest turnout for a playoff game on ABC since the Mavs closed out their 2011 sweep of the Lakers in front of a national TV audience of 8.89 million viewers.
Game 1 of the Warriors-Grizzlies series, which peaked at 10.2 million viewers, also stands as the most-watched NBA playoffs game since Game 4 of the 2019 Western Conference Finals. Golden State’s commanding 116-94 win over Portland averaged 7.79 million viewers three years ago on ESPN.
Memphis failed to capitalize on Draymond Green’s ejection late in the first half of Sunday’s game after an iffy Flagrant 2 foul. Green, who has a habit of getting shown the door in the playoffs—his infamous ouster from Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals was a catalyst in Cleveland’s storied comeback run—made the most of his exit, clowning the Memphis faithful with a mock-victory lap before bouncing his way to the showers.
At the time Green got the hook, Memphis was up 54-53. The Grizzlies had a 61-55 lead at the half, but a gleefully hyperactive offensive showing by Curry and 31 points off the bench care of Splash Brothers: The Next Generation’s Jordan Poole gave Golden State a 1-0 series lead.
In the Sunday lead-in slot, Milwaukee’s 101-89 win over Boston averaged 5.37 million viewers, up 58% versus ABC’s comparable Hawks-Sixers window (3.39 million) in 2021, and good for a 28% lift from the second-round Bucks-Celtics opener three years ago.
Ratings for Monday night’s Sixers-Heat and Mavs-Suns doubleheader will be available later today. Joel Embiid sat out Philadelphia’s 106-92 loss with a concussion and an orbital fracture, bringing the Sixers’ Process-free record to 6-9 this season. Embiid may be ready to rejoin his team in time for Philly’s May 8 home opener. Phoenix, meanwhile, topped Dallas by a 121-114 margin despite a 45-point night by Luka Dončić.
The Bucks-Celtics and Warriors-Grizzlies series continue tonight on TNT.
(Requisite boilerplate/housekeeping note: While year-to-year ratings comps are made somewhat hairy by the Sept. 2020 introduction of out-of-home deliveries to the national TV numbers, the 14% gains made compared to last season’s opening round are organic, although it’s probably worth noting that Nielsen copped to botching the first few months of its OOH date-gathering efforts. Without getting too far into the measurement weeds, suffice it to say that material gains achieved versus pre-OHH seasons are still valid; for example, while the new data stream helped goose comparisons to the pre-COVID 2019 playoffs—overall deliveries for the first round were up 18% from the analogous period three years ago—the lift when this year’s OOH numbers are factored out is +5%.)