The NBA is booming for TNT, with viewership up nine percent this season over last. They are not bad if you are ESPN, viewership is flat with last year, according to numbers in the Sports Business Journal (subscription required). You can say the ratings boom hitting other sports has come to the NBA.
But as you get into the local markets, it is a mixed bag. There are the haves and have nots. And that is starting to be reflected in the standings, something that should be a concern for the NBA as it heads into this round of Collective Bargaining.
Things are great if you are the Cavaliers. On Fox Sports Ohio they are drawing a league best 8.53 rating, which means 130,000 households a game. Things are great if you are the Lakers, whose ratings on Fox Sports West are 3.84 (fourth best in the league) and in the huge media market that is Los Angeles that means a league best 197,000 pairs of eyeballs a game.
And when the Lakers negotiate that lucrative local television deal, they share almost none of that revenue with other teams under the current system. (Only revenue generated from that contract outside of a 75-mile radius of a team’s home market has to be shared.)
Charlotte on the other hand has the smallest local television viewer ship, 10,000 per game, which means there are actually more people paying to be in the building than watching from home (if you believe the team attendance numbers). And that television viewership is nearly doubled from a year ago.
In the end, that means the Lakers and Cavaliers have a lot more money to spend on free agents, can go much farther over the cap, than Charlotte (unless the Bobcats owner wants to lose a lot of money).
The top five teams in terms of eyeballs per game: Lakers, Cavaliers, Bulls, Celtics and Knicks — four playoff teams (two title contenders) and one team trying to recover from epic mismanagement.
You can succeed in a smaller television market — Orlando gets just 21,000 viewers per game, Oklahoma City just 12,000. But how did those teams get good? Smart drafting, looking for deals (save Richard Lewis). How did Boston get good? Buying free agents. The Lakers? Trade for Kobe after the draft, trade for Pau Gasol’s expensive contract.
The NBA does not have the revenue disparity nor the payroll disparity of Major League Baseball, but it is headed that way more than it is trending toward the NFL model. This is one of the things the owners have to figure out — every team has to be able to compete on a fair court or the business model starts to break down.
By the way, nobody is watching the Nets — 39,000 people a game. On the YES network. They could get better numbers showing a repeat of a random mid-July Yankees/Twins game. So it’s not all about the market.