sports

NBA Ratings: What’s going on?

For advertisers, does market size even matter anymore?
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· 3 min read

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Save for a season spent in a bubble, in recent years, advertisers have been lucky to bank on an NBA Finals featuring either LeBron James or a team chasing a dynasty—or both.

Now, with the Brooklyn Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers knocked from contention, the remaining teams—Atlanta, Milwaukee, Phoenix, and Los Angeles (no, not the Lakers)—are bringing smaller audiences to the league’s finish line.

  • Conference semifinal viewership was down 16% compared to 2019, according to Nielsen data cited by Sportico.

This got us thinking: Does market size even matter anymore? Is a Milwaukee vs. Phoenix championship really that big a deal if you're a broadcaster working with the NBA?

Kind of. First of all, math. “The [ratings] ceiling is lower for smaller market teams just because of fewer avid fan households tuning in,” Matt Balvanz, SVP of analytics and innovation at the sports marketing consulting firm NVGT, told Marketing Brew.

Plus, market size is a hedge against a drop-off should a game become a blowout, making viewers tune out, explained Will Mao, VP of global media rights at Octagon, a sports marketing agency. “Market size still matters to NBA sponsors and ad buyers during the NBA Playoffs and Finals,” he told us.

1+: Ratings are still the gold standard for evaluating media rights and advertising inventory. Bigger markets give advertisers more confidence in their buys, especially in the earlier rounds of the playoffs before a championship, explained Mao.

But championships are different.

  • An example: The NFL saw its worst Super Bowl ratings in more than a decade when two small(er) market teams—the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kansas City Chiefs,—faced off in February.
  • Still, media buyers paid through the nose, spending $5.5 million for a 30-second spot in the middle of a pandemic, only slightly less than 2020’s $5.6 million. NBC is reportedly asking for $6 million for next year’s game.

“Even if there is a situation where a Super Bowl underdelivers, it’s still the biggest game in town when it comes to broadcast,” said Mao. “Sports are the bellwether.”

Engagement > ratings: With the growth of social media and international fanbases (Milwaukee’s star player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is Greek), ratings are less important than they were a decade ago, Balvanz said. To this effect, the NBA has publicly touted partnerships with Reddit, Snap, and Twitter to drive up engagement.

“The personalities matter more than the market. The measurement has still not caught up with engagement; it takes time to break habits,” said sports marketing consultant and Columbia University professor Joe Favorito, explaining that traditional ratings don’t tell the whole story.“It’s social, it’s mobile use, it’s money being wagered, it’s much bigger than just ratings. That’s not a proper form of measurement anymore.”

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