Looking Back, NBA’s Cable-Heavy Gamble Paid Off


On this day ten years ago, the NBA signed a television deal that would come to fundamentally change the face of sports television.

On January 22, 2002, the NBA officially announced a six-year television deal with Disney’s ESPN and ABC and Time Warner’s TNT through the 2007-08 season. The deal ended the league’s run with General Electric’s NBC and set in motion the trend of big time professional sports moving primarily to cable television.

The deal, which had been rumored for weeks, reduced the NBA’s exposure on broadcast from over 60 annual regular season and playoff telecasts on NBC to fewer than 30 on ABC. Marquee events such as the NBA All-Star Game and the bulk of the Conference Finals would move to cable.

Not only were the days of frequent double and tripleheaders on broadcast over, but even the days of games in consecutive weeks. During the first few seasons, ABC’s schedule was so erratic that there occasionally several weeks between telecasts. In 2003, the network aired a game on January 4 and did not resume coverage until February 16.

In those first few years, the deal appeared to be a disaster. Ratings, which had been declining since David Stern and the owners locked out the players in 1998, fell off a cliff. The first season on ABC included the lowest rated regular season ever on broadcast (2.6), and worse, the lowest rated NBA Finals ever (6.5). Regular season ratings dropped again the next season (2.4) and kept declining until hitting a record low 2.0 in 2006-07. During the first seven years of the NBA’s partnership with ESPN/ABC, the NBA Finals averaged a single-digit rating six times, bottoming out at a 6.2 in 2007. By comparison, NBC never dipped below a 10.0 average in twelve-years covering the league.

As time went on, however, the NBA and Stern were vindicated. Though the NBA was alone in the wilderness when jumping to cable in 2002, several other sports made the move in subsequent years. Starting in the 2006-07 season, Monday Night Football moved from longtime home ABC to corporate sibling ESPN. Also in 2007, the entire Major League Baseball Division Series and one League Championship Series moved to TBS. In 2011, ESPN began airing the entire Bowl Championship Series. Four years from now, TBS will begin televising the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Final Four in every other year.

In 2002, the NBA appeared to be moving backwards, accepting its status as a niche league waning in popularity. In 2012, the NBA looks like a visionary, reading the writing on the wall for broadcast television and firmly establishing itself on cable before any of its competitors.

Of course, every event that has moved from broadcast to cable has suffered mightily. In 2007 and 2011, the NLCS on TBS averaged less than 3% of U.S. TV homes, astoundingly low numbers for that event. The six Monday Night Football seasons on ESPN have been the lowest rated in the history of the program. Average ratings for the Bowl Championship Series on ESPN were the lowest ever in 2012, marred by the lowest rated Rose Bowl in history, the lowest rated Sugar Bowl in eighteen years, and the lowest rated Orange Bowl in nineteen years. Still, the trend toward cable continues unabated.

The deal has also proven successful for cable networks TNT and ESPN. During the 2010-11 NBA season, TNT aired the most-viewed NBA regular season and playoff games ever on cable and had the most-viewed NBA regular season and postseason in cable history. The ten most-viewed NBA games ever on cable have all taken place since the 2002 deal — and nine of the ten were games that would have aired on NBC during the 1998-02 deal.

Ratings have bounced back in recent years on broadcast. ABC averaged a 3.0 rating for NBA games during the 2010-11 season, higher than NBC’s average in the 2001-02 season (2.7), and the past two NBA Finals on ABC have each averaged at least 10% of U.S. TV homes. The NBA regular season on ABC has outrated Major League Baseball on FOX in each of the past four years, and the NBA Finals has drawn a higher rating and more viewers than the World Series in three of the past four years.

NBC briefly suffered after losing the NBA. From June 13, 2002 to January 14, 2006, the network did not air a single game from any of the four major sports — a nearly four-year run of futility where the network’s biggest weekly events were smattering of NASCAR races during the weakest portion of the sport’s schedule and the Arena Football League. “Walking away from the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball [in 2000]is the sign of a first-place network confident of its direction and in its non-sports programming,” a negotiator for ad agency Campbell-Mithun said shortly after the deal was done (Mediaweek, 2/4/02). In the years since, NBC has plummeted into last place among the big four networks in primetime.

Though ESPN and ABC have never been able to come even close to the quality of telecast NBC offered during its twelve-year tenure, it appears clear with ten years’ distance that the NBA’s gamble has paid off. A television deal that was once indicative of dysfunction and decline now looks wise and pragmatic.

  • JakeFrankie

    NBC did offer to extend it’s contract with the NBA in 2002, But I do believe ABC/ESPN was offering more money. NBC without a doubt has fallen behind the others in my opinion, Besides SNF and a Odd (SB they broadcast here and there). No disrespect to NHL but it’s nowhere near broadcasting national MLB/NBA games. When the MLB and NBA contracts come up we will see if NBC goes after one of them.

    It’s probably only a matter of time before TNT broadcasts a NBA Finals, It’s going to happen of these days. Who would have thought  BSC Title game, all the bowl games, soon to be NCCA Title game, All that MLB/NBA playoff games would be on Cable.

    Also EVERY SPORT has it’s Niche, Look at the superbowl. How many people watching the superbowl are football fans or even real sports fans for that matter? Compare the ratings of a NFL regular season until Conference championship games. You will see the jump for the Superbowl. I always laugh when people say a sport has it’s Niche lol no way.

    • http://twitter.com/morganwick Morgan Wick

      To be fair, the Super Bowl transcends sports and has a lot of people watching for the ads, which isn’t the case for any other sporting event. On the other hand, there are large jumps for the championships of pretty much every other sport beyond about a 3 rating. I don’t know if that supports or undermines your point because I’m not entirely sure what point you were trying to make – “the Super Bowl gets a lot of non-football fans” equals “the NFL is niche”? Yeah, the World Series and NBA Finals get worse ratings than most NFL regular season games, but most NFL regular season games get ratings on par with shows like American Idol, so I guess by your definition literally everything is niche.

      • JakeFrankie

        NFL is and has been America’s sport for a long time now, But also NFL has a leg up on everyone. People watch the Superbowl for commercials as you said. You see a huge jump from any other NFL game to superbowl. Many of the viewers for the SB are non-sports fans is my point. NFL has done a great marketing tool to make it what is it today. Even though the game is usually extremely long and with thousands of commericals people love it I give them credit for that.

        NFL ratings have always been huge, way above any sport. It’s not like it just happened yesterday.

        NBA got 6.0’s for 3 NBA Finals – 
        1981 – Boston Celtics vs Houston Rockets  6.7 (It was on tape delay)
        2003 – San Antonio Spurs vs New Jersey Nets 6.5 
        2007- San Antonio Spurs vs Cleveland Cavaliers 6.2

    • JP

      if they do get the NBA, more than likely they’ll air a bulk of it on NBCSN and some over the air. Similar to what ESPN/ABC does with their package.

  • JP

    the networks just dont have the revenue stream as cable. Outside of the NFL, the other leagues will follow suit to cable. FOX may walk away from baseball when there deal is done and air soccer or some other niche events. 

  • http://twitter.com/mogulboy John Barr

    is another factor here that the article doesn’t mention. The NHL was on ESPN
    until 2004 and thus the early stages of the Disney-NBA deal the NHL competed
    for the same sports enthusiast. Once the NHL left ESPN starting with the 2005-2006
    season ESPN promoted the NBA heavily and the NHL received less airtime on league
    agnostic programing. Sportscenter being the easy example.   ESPN is
    huge marketing machine for the NBA and at the time of the move, they
    desperately needed the exposure. I am well aware that the NHL doesn’t compare
    to the NBA today but in the 90s the NHL was more popular. Sports Illustrated
    did cover story why the NHL is hot and the NBA is not (it might have coincided
    with Jordan’s first retirement ~1994).


    is also no coincidence in the timing of the upswing in NBA ratings with the
    arrival of King James. I know there were plenty of other very talented NBA players
    before LJ but they didn’t have nearly the same hype as the heir apparent to

    • JakeFrankie

      NHL more popular than the NBA in the 90’s? NBA was probably at it’s most popular in the 90’s, Just look at the ratings. All the highest rated NBA Finals were in the 1990’s. Compare the NBA on NBC ratings to any NHL deal. NBA destroys it. I’m not making this is a NBA vs NHL discussion but you gotta be kidding me.

      I’m not trying to be mean, But you probably have said one of the dumbest lines I have every heard. Stanley Cup or any other NHL ratings have never compared to the NBA, Has a Stanley Cup series every even averaged 5.0.

      American Sports ratings powerhouses – Are NFL/College Football, MLB and NBA/College Basketball 

      SI making a cover story mean anything? 

      • http://twitter.com/morganwick Morgan Wick

        I think the point of the SI story was that the NHL was on the way up, not that it had already passed the NBA. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Stanley Cup Final averaged a 5 once or twice, especially while all the games were on ESPN or broadcast, but not much more than that. Still, the NBA probably approached 6 during its nadir(s).

      • JB

        I did not say that the NHL was more popular
        than the NBA, only that the NBA had competition (from a promo side as well as
        air time). Case in point is that ESPN had NHL tonight and there was no
        equivalent NBA show at the time. As far as TNT vs. ESPN, I don’t have the data
        to support but my theory is that the TNT ratings when up with the ESPN upswing
        as well because the peripheral impact of ESPN promoting it.

        SI making a cover story is estimate to the
        competition the NBA had from the NHL in the 90s.

        • JakeFrankie

          Again, I think you don’t understand. NBA rating’s even after Jordan TNT-NBC one’s were still fantastic. 

          Look at the NBA Finals ratings post Jordan (Before ESPN) 

          1999 Finals – 11.3 San Antonio Spurs vs New York Knicks (5 Games)
          2000 Finals – 11.6 Los Angeles Lakers vs Indiana Pacers (6 Games) 
          2001 Finals – 12.1 Los Angeles Lakers vs Philadelphia 76ers (5 games)
          2002 Finals – 10.2 Los Angeles Lakers vs New Jersey Nets (4 Games)

          NBC regular season/playoffs were just as high as the NBA on ABC ratings today. TNT again like I said has always been the strongest draw for NBA games on Cable TV.

          Until 2010 the highest watched NBA regular season was the Chicago Bulls vs the Los Angeles Lakers (Magic Johnson’s return) of Feb 1996 on TNT.

          I doubt NHL had even half of these finals numbers, let alone 90-93/ 95-98 (Jordan Years of the NBA)

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrea-Cavalli/757338131 Andrea Cavalli

       Not really…the NHL in the mid 90’s, unlike the NBA, may have been on an upswing (though that’s just a matter of opinions, not facts, a cover on SI.com doesn’t say much and I’d guess the article was written by an hockey writer so there you go), but this doesn’t mean the NHL was more popular.

      As a matter of fact, those are the ratings the NBA Finals drew in 1994 and 1995 (during Jordan’s first retirement)

      1994 NBC  Houston Rockets-New York Knicks   12.4  (seven games)
      1995 NBC  Houston Rockets-Orlando Magic  13.9  (four games)

      Did the NHL average even half of that? If so you may have a point but that’s not  the case.

      • JakeFrankie

        Good points, 1980’s was the NBA “Golden Era”. But 1990’s actually had better ratings than the 1980’s which some people don’t know lol.
        To think the NBA “needed ESPN” is beyond laughable. If you look (not counting the NBA Finals) TNT games are usually the highest rated NBA games, If you look at the highest rated NBA games on Cable TV it’s pretty much dominated all by TNT on NBA games.

        Yes ESPN does a great job in helping promote the NBA, But TNT. In the past NBC and CBS all did a great job to promote the NBA. Some people are funny I guess lol. 

        For the record too, ESPN always covered the NBA a lot. Even when they didn’t have the tv rights.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrea-Cavalli/757338131 Andrea Cavalli

           I and you, JakeFrankie, think alike  :)

        • John Barr

          Again I never said that NHL was more popular, only that the NBA had more competition from the NHL. What did TNT’s ratings do before and after the ESPN deal? My hunch is that it went up because the sheer marketing power of the biggest sports media company which is why I say they needed ESPN. What I probably should have said is that the NBA needed ESPN to grow. 

  • http://twitter.com/morganwick Morgan Wick

    I’m not sure what point this post is trying to make. “Everyone jumped to cable after the NBA did” does not necessarily mean it worked out all that well for the NBA or everyone else, and in fact the article points out that ratings for every major sporting event to leap to cable has declined, suggesting all these sports may just be lemmings falling off a cliff and the real “wise and pragmatic” league might be the one that remains committed to broadcast (especially with cable companies and concerned consumers starting to smart from all the jacked-up rights fees).

    Sure NBA ratings have rebounded on broadcast and cable, but what did the NBA gain by “establishing itself on cable before any of its competitors”? Did it somehow claim time on the schedule that kept out other sports – an unlikely prospect considering how much time ESPN and TNT actually have and how they’d apportion it? Did getting an early start mean they got through the early decline and that people have found NBA games on ESPN and TNT now, and that’s why the ratings are good, as opposed to the league seeing its best play since the MJ days? If so, why should I expect the same to happen with events like the BCS Championship Game, which has so many people addicted to it that any new viewers would have to come from people actually subscribing to cable (or changes like better games or an actual playoff that aren’t actually related to whether the initial hit from moving to cable is wearing off), especially since you’d have to be living under a rock to not know what and where ESPN is and what they’re showing?You could argue that the NBA got an early start on the pot of money waiting from cable’s dual revenue stream, although when the NBA reupped the MNF and MLB deals had only just gone down so it’s not like they couldn’t have waited, or on making sure they were getting lots of coverage on SportsCenter, but that’s about it.