There’s been a lot of scrutiny over the NBA national television schedule released last week. From the reporting that followed, basketball fans might think number one draft pick and super rookie Zion Williamson will be on every channel every night. But a closer look tells a slightly different story about the teams and players that will be on the most TV screens this year.
A lot happens in the NBA off-season with the draft and free agency, so the league and their four national broadcast partners — ESPN, TNT, ABC and NBA TV — had to wait for four significant dates:
- June 13 – last game of the 2018-2019 NBA Finals
- June 20 – NBA 2019 draft
- June 30 – first day of free agency
- July 10 – most big name free agents off the board
Face for Television
A few factors weigh heavily in the NBA’s pre-season determination of what makes games worthy of national television exposure:
- Marquee players – which is why the league waited to see where big name free agents landed
- Games played in primetime – late starting West coast games draw fewer viewers
- Rookie phenoms – can you say Zion?
- Spreading the wealth – even the teams at the bottom of the standings get a few national games
With all these considerations tossed into the hopper, the NBA decided to give the most national airtime to the LA Clippers — 38 games. The Clippers get the TV boost from Kawhi Leonard, Paul George. Across town, the Lakers, starring LeBron James and Anthony Davis, are slated for 32.
Most National Televised Appearances 2019-20
- Los Angeles Clippers – 38
- Philadelphia 76ers – 36
- Boston Celtics – 35
- Milwaukee Bucks – 34
- Los Angles Lakers – 32
- New Orleans Pelicans – 30
- New Jersey Nets – 21
It’s a risk for the NBA and their network partners, as time and again, late-starting mid-week west-coast games have been viewership busts.
Among the east coast teams, Philadelphia and Boston put up the best pre-season records, earning their 36 and 35 primetime spots, respectively. For good teams, earlier start times tend to equal more viewers and more slots on the schedule.
The Milwaukee Bucks, with reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, are the pre-season pick to win the Eastern Conference. Being in the Central time zone will not dramatically affect their television time.
An NBA TV Star is Born
New Orleans, with 30 slots, has never had so many nationally televised appearances. And the reason for their premium positioning is simple: #1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Without the lottery win to get him, New Orleans might have expected 10 or 11 national games. But with him — a player pegged as the next LeBron and savior — the Pelicans now have 30 slots, the most ever for a small market team. They even open the season in the Tip-Off Classic against the defending champions Toronto Raptors.
The New Jersey Nets got Kevin Durant, but he will not play this year. Expect a post-injury Durant in 2020-21 to push the Nets into the elite of nationally televised games.
East / West Time Bias
East coast/West coast double-headers are popular televised offerings but with the West coast game started at 10:30 PM East coast time, the viewership fell off dramatically from the early game and crashed at halftime, which came just short of midnight on East coast.
The league has attempted to deal with that problem by adjusting many of the doubleheader games in the NBA schedule to 7:30/10:00 starts and an even earlier 7:00/9:30 scheduling for several games.
Starting a game at 6:30 in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento or Portland will be a real test for the local fans but the league is determined to keep the television viewership high without keeping the East coast fans up past midnight.