ESPN Radio has a new voice in the morning. For what seemed like forever – actually, it was merely 17 years – Mike and Mike in the Morning was on the air. Several years ago, ESPN moved Mike Greenberg to TV and the radio side morphed into Golic and Wingo. There was always an element of lightness and humor with Mike and Mike that never seemed to take root on Golic and Wingo; the humor and banter there always sounded a bit forced to me. Nevertheless, the ESPN morning radio offering was always my choice here in the DC area because the other two options have always been tedious.
The change at ESPN Radio now has three folks on the air in the morning. They are Keyshawn Johnson, Jay Williams and Zubin Mehenti. They have been on the air only a week and a half so there is plenty of time – and room – for growth. The show’s producers seem to be using the leverage of ESPN to get top-shelf guests for the interview segments. I have heard from Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari, Tyson Fury and Ken Burns during my moments of drop-in listening; that is impressive for less than two weeks on the air.
What needs to develop – in my mind – is a more natural conversational tone to the program. For most programs of this kind, that sort of tone takes a while to evolve. The exception to this rule would be Pardon the Interruption where Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon had worked together and been friends for 20 years or so before they ever hit the airwaves. So far, the new morning show is promising…
There is another aspect of sports media that is not nearly as promising, and it is a bit confusing. The NBA TV ratings are down – and down significantly. Yes, they are undergoing a “season-interruptus”; that has sort of happened before because of labor squabbles; today, the ratings are down much more than they were then, and the trend is negative. Consider:
- Games of the Week this year (ABC) averaged less than 3 million viewers per game.
- Ratings were down on every network that carried NBA telecasts by at least 20%.
For perspective, recall that several years ago lots of folks were focused on the cratering television viewership for NFL games. People opined that it was the Presidential election of 2016 that drew attention away from the NFL but that there were organic problems with the league involving things like CTE and kneeling for the Anthem. As all of that played out, the average game audience dropped to 14.9 million viewers per game – about 5 times more than this year’s NBA audience. Last year, the NFL audience rebounded from that low point and for 2019 the average audience was 16.5 million souls.
Putting the NBA numbers for this year’s regular season in another perspective, the TV audience for XFL 2.0 was about 1.5 million viewers per game. The NBA – one of the top-shelf sports broadcasting properties in the US – had audiences about double the reconstructed XFL.
This is not good news for the NBA for more reasons than the raw numbers:
- The NBA playoff games in “the bubble” have been good ones. New stars are emerging like Damian Lillard, Jamal Murray, Donovan Mitchell and Luka Doncic; Anthony Davis’s game has blossomed and Kawhi Leonard just keeps getting better.
- There is not of sports competition on TV at this time; the NFL will not start for another couple of weeks and the MLB playoffs will not happen for another month.
- But the audience is not soaring even under those conditions.
Here are some things that would worry me if I were someone “on the business side” in the NBA:
- NBA regular season games have lost their TV luster. Too small a percentage of those 1230 regular season games are consequential and even hard-core NBA fans recognize this.
- The NBA has grown and developed by marketing its stars. That has been a successful business model for the league. Now, the stars have chosen to concentrate themselves on “super-teams”. That makes the “less-than-super-teams” much less interesting and makes more of the regular season games inconsequential.
- The existence of the “super-teams” diminishes interest in areas where there is no “super-team”. When the regular season began in 2019, did any rational fans of the Timberwolves, Pistons, Bulls, Knicks, Cavaliers or Hawks think their teams had a chance to be champions this year? How about win 30 games out of 82? Because those teams are out of it from the start, the league has fewer teams to choose from to showcase on national TV games – and watching the same teams all the time becomes less interesting as the season goes on.
- When the league schedules a TV game that seems consequential and fans tune in to see it, there is always the possibility that one or more of the star players who make the game consequential will be sitting on the bench “managing load”. Of course, players need to care for their bodies; no one can argue with that. However, that does not help with the audience numbers for such a game because watching what was anticipated as a consequential game turns into watching a JV contest.
Those four problem areas would concern me “on the business side” because they have been baked into the NBA over the past 25-30 years. It took time and effort to crate that business model and it will take time and a lot of effort – and cooperation from the star players that the league has created and empowered – to make any meaningful change in direction. The current TV deal for the NBA with ABC, TNT and ESPN runs through the end of the 2024/25 season and delivers about $2.7B to the NBA annually. That TV contract is the big swinger in determining the salary cap for the teams and is the prime revenue generator for many teams. The league needs to find ways to stabilize its audience numbers quickly and then figure out how to grow them at the time they begin to negotiate their next TV deal.
Finally, Bob Molinaro had the observation about sports media programming recently in the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot:
“East Coast bias: As I type this, the Red Sox have the American League’s worst record. They are irrelevant, in other words. Somebody remind ESPN’s programming department.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………