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Thursday, July 25, 2024
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Finals Draw Underwhelming Viewership, but NBA Juggernaut Rolls On

  • They averaged 11.31 million viewers, down 3% from last year.
  • But the impact will be negligible on NBA’s $76 billion media-rights talks.
Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

This year’s underwhelming NBA Finals drew equally underwhelming TV viewership. But the impact on the league’s billion-dollar media-rights negotiations is expected to be negligible due to the soaring value of premier sports properties such as The Association.

This year’s lopsided Finals generated little drama. ABC’s coverage of the Celtics’ five-game victory over the Mavericks averaged 11.31 million viewers, according to Sports Media Watch. That was down 3% from last year’s five-game Nuggets-Heat series. But Celtics-Mavs still outdrew the COVID-19-delayed Bucks-Suns in 2021, which averaged 9.9 million viewers, as well as Lakers-Heat in ’20, which drew 7.5 million from the bubble.

TV networks like ABC don’t root for teams; they root for long series. Sweeps, and five-game gentleman sweeps, are not big money-makers versus best-of-seven series that last six, or the holy grail, seven games. Still, 11.31 million is a good, if not great, number. Disney’s ABC can point to other positives, too.

The network’s coverage drew the largest share ever among the advertiser-coveted 18- to 34-year-old audience. The much-maligned NBA Countdown studio show drew its biggest audience in five years, averaging 4.02 million viewers.

Meanwhile, negotiations continue to creep along for the NBA’s next long-term cycle of media-rights deals heading into the 2030s. TNT Sports is holding out hope it can carve out a fourth TV package—or contractually match offers from third-party bidders NBC and Amazon Prime Video. But TNT’s 40-year relationship with the NBA is still hanging by a thread. The most likely scenario is still for the NBA to finalize a $76 billion, 11-year set of deals, with ESPN paying $2.6 billion a year for the “A” package (including exclusive coverage of the Finals), NBC paying $2.5 billion for the “B” package, and Prime forking over $1.8 billion per year for a streaming package similar to its deal with the NFL for Thursday Night Football.

So what’s the holdup? Blame it on lawyers, I’m told. The “matching rights” language signed in the contracts a decade ago were vague enough that if TNT matches the offer from Prime, and the NBA counters it’s not truly a match, there could be lawsuits. I’m not sure TNT wants to get the reputation as a network that sues its own sports rights partners. Then again Warner Bros. Discovery boss David Zaslav could view a lawsuit as a face-saving half-court heave to prove to his unhappy Inside the NBA stars like Charles Barkley that he at least tried to keep the NBA. As I wrote earlier this week, Barkley’s announcement of his retirement after next season could likely be a last-ditch power play to keep his TNT colleagues in the NBA game. The consensus opinion is that Barkley will be on TV for years to come.

Will Stephen A. Get His Bag?

We reported previously this week that the opening price for Stephen A. Smith’s next contract would likely start at around $20 million. On Thursday, Puck reported his reps at WME are seeking as much as $25 million versus an offer of $18 million per year from ESPN. A top source told me Friday the final number for the face and voice of ESPN could come in between $20 million and $25 million versus his current $12 million per year.

Either way, this will be the most closely watched contract negotiation in ESPN history. With his current deal expiring in June, Smith has publicly stated he wants to be the highest-paid talent at ESPN, ahead of Troy Aikman ($18 million), Pat McAfee ($16 million), and Joe Buck ($15 million). But will ESPN break the bank for the star who’s made First Take No. 1 in its time slot for 12 years in a row? After all, Smith doesn’t call games, which is where the real action is at ESPN. You could argue he’s undercut his own negotiating position by grooming Shannon Sharpe as his successor on the weekday morning show. Maybe that’s one reason why Smith has his eye on the NFL. He’s talked about more directly covering the league’s most popular sport like his idol Howard Cosell. Carving out a stronger NFL role would make Smith even more valuable to ESPN bosses David Roberts, Burke Magnus, and Jimmy Pitaro, especially with ESPN’s first-ever Super Bowl coming up after the 2027 season. I can see Smith and Sharpe contributing to Sunday NFL Countdown, Monday Night Countdown, and NFL Live. Or taking First Take on the road to NFL games. Or having the duo chew over NFL debates during halftime of Monday Night Football. It’s all up for grabs; it will be fascinating to see how it plays out.

Michael McCarthy’s “Tuned In” column is at your fingertips every week with the latest insights and ongoings around sports media. If he hears it, you will, too.

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