Saturday Nights Evolving Into Marquee NBA Night for ESPN and ABC

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Image via ESPN Media Zone

Back for its fourth season, ESPN’s NBA Saturday Primetime will premiere this Saturday on ABC with a matchup between two of the league’s flashiest franchises in the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers.

“I think you’re going to see a great presentation of NBA basketball from a production standpoint, and from a standpoint of the best the NBA has to offer, in terms of teams and players,” said Doug White, senior director of programming and acquisitions at ESPN. “It really encapsulates everything that’s great about the NBA.”

The series will continue throughout the rest of the season, with a marquee matchup on ABC each Saturday. This week, the Rockets and Lakers face off with Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson and Lisa Salters leading the broadcast crew.

“The league itself does great job collaborating with us and working on the schedule,” White said. “If anything, in terms of the way the league works with us, it’s that we’ve been able to make sure we put a good product forth for our viewers and fans.”

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Saturday will also feature a matinee version of NBA Saturday Primetime with a game between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Oklahoma City Thunder, called by Mark Jones, Hubie Brown and Israel Gutierrez.

“You never know what’s going to happen that far out, but what you can probably say is that some of the teams you see on Saturday nights will be the teams in contention, and will be the teams — in all likelihood — vying once we get to the playoffs,” White said.

The usual NBA Countdown crew of Michelle Beadle, Paul Pierce, Chauncey Billups and Jalen Rose will hold down the fort during pregame and halftime each night.

Despite this Saturday being the first broadcast of NBA Saturday Primetime this season, White said that the ESPN team is in full swing, from its producers to its broadcasters.

“It’s not practice for us,” he said. “These are real, live games, and although the Finals is the culmination of everything, our guys already have their chemistry down, from Mark Jackson, Mike Breen, Lisa Salters, Doris Burke—they’ve all worked together for a number of years.”

Between the NFL’s Monday Night Football and MLB’s Sunday Night Baseball, certain days of the week have essentially become synonymous with big-time matchups in other professional leagues. Though NBA games receive high ratings when they are broadcast on the popular networks like ESPN, ABC and TNT, there hasn’t traditionally been one major matchup of the week like in the NFL and MLB.

That’s why, as White explained, ESPN has made it a goal to turn Saturday night into the primary must-watch time slot for NBA fans.

“Definitely, from our standpoint, this is our marquee night of the week, and we treat it as such,” he said. “We do put some additional bells and whistles on it, so it does stand out a little bit from a presentation standpoint.”

So far this season, ESPN and ABC have been a powerhouse pairing during NBA broadcasts, with ABC averaging 7,100,000 viewers (up five percent from last season) and ESPN averaging 1,761,000 viewers. Although ESPN’s numbers are down 4 percent from last season, the network has seen a seven percent increase from two years prior at this time of the year.

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“We’re all part of the Walt Disney company, so we work very much in tandem with our ABC stations,” White said. “It’s pretty seamless, and we’ve been doing it for so long together… We’ve learned that people will tune in, and people will come for big-time matchups, and that Saturday night is a great platform to present that to fans.”

Although it’s yet to be determined what the final viewership numbers will look like at the end of this season, ESPN’s increased emphasis on NBA Saturday Primetime — paired with the NBA’s drama-filled season thus far — appears to be the formula for successful ratings.

“We’re bullish on this year and the NBA overall,” White said. “It’s a very healthy league, and it’s popular with the fans and all demos. We think, for this year in particular, it’s an exciting year. There’s been great drama that gets played out. It’s like a gift that you unwrap all season long to find out who will be there at the end.”