In the first season of a massive new $24 billion television contract, the NBA saw its combined domestic ratings for all networks stay even when compared to last season.
For Bill Koenig, the league's president of global media distribution, that qualifies as a victory.
Long immune to the ratings tumbles that have plagued other television shows in the era of DVRs and cord-cutting, some sports leagues saw their viewership numbers dip in part because of a bombastic presidential election cycle. The NBA opened its season going head-to-head with a historic World Series matchup between the Cubs and Indians, but has emerged with what Koenig considers encouraging signs as the playoffs begin next week.
The combined U.S. ratings held firm at 0.8 for the season while the league had a 3 percent rise in unique viewers and a 6 percent increase in the total hours of game action fans have watched in a season, according to the NBA. Also, 19 more games were broadcast nationally.
"I think our game is very attractive to the younger, more technologically savvy, multicultural fan. Those numbers are growing over time," Koenig said in a phone interview. "I also think there is a real emphasis here of promoting our game through traditional means, buying advertising, but also through social media."
Koenig was at the forefront of negotiations for the record-breaking contract with Turner and ESPN/ABC that flooded the league with revenue this season. If the sheer size of the deal put more pressure on the NBA to deliver big ratings, Koenig isn't telling.
"We worked with our network partners to drive tune-in, to make a compelling schedule and to use our digital and social media in ways that are an advantage for us," Koenig said. "I wouldn't say it's any more important this year than it was in years past, but as time goes on we have more in our arsenal to help drive viewership."
The NBA leads all U.S. sports leagues with 1.3 billion combined followers on social media and is feeding the appetite for content.
With the 19 additional national television games, fans have watched 37 million more hours of game action, the league said. The Christmas Day game between Cleveland and Golden State was the most viewed early game in ABC's history, opening night on TNT was up 8 percent and the most-viewed curtain-raiser since 2013 and the Warriors-Cavaliers rematch on Martin Luther King Jr. Day was the most-viewed regular season game since 2013.
That contrasts with the NFL, which saw its ratings decline by 8 percent last season, while marquee games on Sunday and Monday nights were down 12 percent and 10 percent, respectively.
Compelling story lines including Russell Westbrook's pursuit of averaging a triple-double through an entire season, LeBron James' title defense in Cleveland, Kevin Durant's move to Golden State and James Harden's renaissance in Houston have helped drive interest.
In the second half of the season, the issue of resting star players has come to the forefront. Television partners have expressed concern when healthy stars sit out of nationally televised games. It will be a topic this week when the owners convene in New York for the Board of Governors meetings.
"I've been in touch with our national and regional telecasters on this issue. It's something that's very important," Koenig said. "Obviously, the basketball people with our teams and our league are very involved in this process, too. We're going to discuss it and try and come up with measures that we think will address the issue in a way that serves the various interests that we're trying to serve."
There will be discussions about streamlining replays and timeouts in an effort to make the game more "free-flowing" and enjoyable to watch, Koenig said. He did not anticipate any changes for next season, but the league has already installed clocks in arenas to try and keep timeouts from dragging too long. Broadcasters are starting to sprinkle advertising in during free throws and other slower times to try to avoid the full commercial breaks that can lead viewers to change the channel.
"We understand the importance of pure competition. We don't want to do anything that will negatively impact that," Koenig said. "I think that the basketball side understands the business reality and the importance of what we're trying to do and we're both working toward the same end."
The television contract lasts another eight years, and Koenig's work is hardly finished. The league is constantly experimenting with its presentation, exploring virtual reality, different camera angles for mobile viewers and other ways to appeal to a changing audience.
"We can't rest on our laurels," he said. "We want to evolve. We want to create something that is more compelling for today's viewer and tomorrow's viewer."
This story has been clarified to show that the Warriors-Cavaliers game on MLK Day was TNT's highest-rated regular season game since 2013, not just its highest-rated MLK Day game.