Who needs LeBron James? Luka Doncic and Ja Morant give the NBA a strong media foothold

Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies pulls up to the basket to shoot against the Golden State Warriors in the second half of Game 3 of the NBA Western Conference Semifinals at the Chase Center on May 7, 2022 in San Francisco, California.

Theron W. Henderson | Getty Images

The NBA is in a strong position as it recovers from the pandemic and prepares for the next cycle of media rights in the next few years. Playoff viewership has increased without much involvement from teams in the huge markets of New York and Los Angeles. The biggest star in the league, LeBron James, also missed out on the playoffs.

Spectators tune in to watch the Golden State Warriors return to title contention after missing the playoffs last year. The Boston Celtics are also hitting big numbers as the legendary franchise looks to add an 18th title banner to their arena rafters. Electric young stars Ja Morant and Luka Doncic also helped rebuild the NBA playoff rankings after two years of a pandemic-fuelled slump.

“The NBA is no longer dependent on one or two teams,” said longtime sports media chief Neil Pilson. “They are no longer dependent on the big market teams. It shows strength.”

The NBA Conference Finals kicked off earlier this week on Warner Bros. Discovery, owned by Turner Sports, and Disney-owned networks ABC and ESPN. Thanks to early conference finals, post-season games averaged 3.7 million viewers online, up 14% from 2021.

Over 6 million people watched Game 1 of the 2022 Western Conference Finals between the Warriors and the Dallas Mavericks. ESPN also reported that about 6 million viewers watched Game 1 and Game 2 of the Celtics-Miami Heat series. The NBA uses the Nielsen measurement company for viewership statistics.

$24 billion NBA deal with ESPN and Turner ends after 2024-25 campaign. Speculation about whether the NBA will use streaming services in the next round of deals.

The league will have a strong hand to play in large part because of its young stars.

Pilson, former president of CBS Sports, cited the NBA’s team balance and promotion of young stars as a reason fans are showing interest. The Memphis Grizzlies’ Morant and Dallas’ Doncic put the NBA in a “healthy situation” for a lucrative rights deal, he said.

The popularity of the 22-year-old Morant helped the Memphis Grizzlies reach the most watched playoff series of all time. The Grizzlies’ series against the Warriors was watched by an average of 5.9 million viewers over six games. This includes the 7.7 million viewers who watched Game 1, the highest-rated playoff game to date.

Morant missed the last three games of the series due to injury. But he’s expected to return next season, so expect national networks to show more Grizzlies games.

Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks handles the ball during Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Western Conference Finals on May 18, 2022 at the Chase Center in San Francisco, California.

Noah Graham | NBA | Getty Images

Doncic, 23, led the Mavericks to a Game 7 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Sunday. This game averaged 6.3 million viewers and was the fifth most watched playoff game this year.

“You can turn on Memphis and Dallas and get an audience,” Pilson said, adding that the NBA “doesn’t depend on the Lakers and certainly doesn’t depend on the Knicks.”

However, the league will be tested during the NBA Finals in June.

The 2021 NBA Finals averaged 9.9 million viewers when the Milwaukee Bucks and superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo defeated the Suns. That’s more than the average of 7.5 million viewers at the 2020 NBA Finals, which sees James, now 37, and the Lakers play in front of an empty arena in the Orlando Covid bubble. But that’s also a lot less than the 15.1 million viewers who watched the 2019 NBA Finals with the Warriors and Toronto Raptors.

Of the remaining teams, the Heat-Mavs Finals may not draw the most crowds as the Celtics-Warriors or Celtics-Mavs series. But Pilson said the rest of the star players, including Warriors superstar Stephen Curry, would be enough to draw in a sizable audience. The profile of Jason Tatum, the 24-year-old Celtics star, has also grown this postseason.

“There are more NBA teams now that can support the Finals in terms of athletes and ratings than 10 years ago,” he said. “This is a property by the sea – sports are driving the TV economy. That’s why rights fees are high and sponsors have to pay big money.”

Boston Celtics defenseman Marcus Smart (36) was fouled by Miami Heat forward PJ Tucker (17) in the first quarter. The Miami Heat host the Boston Celtics in Game 2 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals at the FTX Arena in Miami, Florida on May 19, 2022.

Matthew J. Lee | Boston Globe | Getty Images

At an NBA board of governors meeting in April in New York, league commissioner Adam Silver said it was “premature” to consider adding new partners to the next rights deal, he did say the NBA is closely monitoring the rights market, especially as , now spends on sports on its Apple TV+ service.

“The discussions we have now are more about forecasts and where the media market is heading,” Silver said. “I think we will continue to see the transformation of many of the rights that historically belonged to traditional services into streaming services. And frankly, consumers are going there too.”

But how the NBA packages those rights is up in the air. Apple showed its interest in the sports media business when it closed a deal this spring to acquire the rights to MLB. Amazon is already partnering with the NBA as it streams WNBA games.

“I think the media in this country is going in that direction,” Silver said. “People want personalization. They want personalization.”

He added that streaming platforms offer sports fans “flexibility and options that you might not find in conventional, satellite and cable delivery.”

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