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NBA's Adam Silver says cable TV model is 'broken' amid ratings decline

Thomas Barrabi

The NBA’s lucrative television deals, long considered the crown jewel of its business, are contributing to a noticeable drop in ratings this season, according to Commissioner Adam Silver.

Speaking at Sports Business Journal’s Dealmakers conference in New York City, Silver noted that the cable television model is “broken to a certain extent” amid the cord-cutting trend. Younger viewers, which compose a significant portion of the NBA’s audience, are abandoning cable in droves in favor of streaming services – a troubling development for a league that has long-term deals with Disney’s ESPN and WarnerMedia’s TNT.

“You’re really pushing a rock up a hill if you’ve lost 20 percent of your [cable] audience over the last four years, especially when…that young audience that we attract is disproportionately represented by that 20 percent,” Silver said, according to SBJ.

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While the NBA airs some marquee games on NBA each season, the majority of its national broadcasts air on ESPN and TNT, both of which are cable networks that draw steep carriage fees. The NBA derives a large portion of its annual revenue from the nine-year, $24 billion television and media rights deals it signed with the two networks in 2014.

As of this month, the NBA’s ratings were down 23 percent on TNT broadcasts and roughly 20 percent on ESPN broadcasts. Various factors, including the cord-cutting trend, the practice of “load management” to rest key players and superstar LeBron James’ move to the Los Angeles Lakers on the West Coast are said to be contributing to the decline.

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The NBA also offers the “League Pass” over-the-top service that costs $249.99 for an annual subscription.

Silver isn’t the only top NBA official to bemoan the state of the league’s broadcast partnerships. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has also noted the challenge of reaching viewers when most NBA games are exclusive to cable subscribers.

“Ratings are down because all of our national broadcasts are exclusively available on cable, which is losing [subscribers] daily,” Cuban wrote on Twitter last month. “Football benefits from being on broadcast TV which is every digital and traditional package along with gambling available in some of the biggest markets.”

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