In-Season Tournament: Another Streaming Flop
Why sports media is not well-positioned to judge the failure
Welcome back to another edition of, “Man’s lukewarm skepticism about the NBA’s moves over the last 10 years keeps getting validated, yet he keeps finding himself in role of ‘contrarian’ for continuing to express it.” Or, since that’s a mouthful, we’ll just call it, “Hating.”
You might notice that the tone has shifted in industry coverage of Disney’s Marvel ventures, and other massive projects by entertainment brands. Given the now obvious financial downfall of streaming, movies and TV are no longer assessed according to soft standards. There’s an awareness that with big budgets, come big expectations. If a Marvel movie makes $100 million at the box office, but its budget is $300 million, it is correctly assessed as a flop.
Sports media is not well positioned to make similar big picture judgments, in part because so many of that cohort prefers to analyze the games. Whatever industry spin the leagues put out to games-focused media mostly gets accepted as gospel. This is how the NBA was able to lose about half its network TV audience without setting off alarms within industry. Beyond that aspect, the decline of cable television and its associated challenges is just too far outside the purview of sports coverage to be tracked. Nobody’s used to judging a project like the IST against all that went into it and all that’s riding on it. And so we get spun.
How’d the IST do?
This brings us to the NBA’s In Season Tournament, a big project, one it wanted to sell to a streamer, such as Netflix. After some pedestrian viewership returns, Netflix let it be known that they weren’t interested in a docuseries covering this event.
Maybe someone else will want the product, down the road. The league put a lot of financial and other forms of capital behind pioneering a compartmentalized portion of the season, all for the purpose of growing revenue. So what were the expectations here? Nobody really wanted to define them and yet many will tell you it’s all a big success.
The IST has been widely and wildly applauded by NBA media. Hell, even my editor has praised it, the traitor. LeBron and the Lakers capped off a big run by popping champagne upon winning it, which was about as league favored an outcome as could be achieved. I’m not sure what viewership number the Laker title (?) gets on Saturday, in prime time, on ABC + ESPN2 (4 million? 5 million?), but I can say that the tournament overall failed to gain traction.
There was a months long awareness campaign, starting with ads all over Las Vegas, back in July. There were all the logistical costs associated with shifting the schedule, the court paint jobs that cost millions, the seven figures worth of prize money given to teams and, of course, the Michael Imperioli commercial. The Final Four games themselves were given a lot of publicity, including Gameday style on site coverage that combined the ESPN and TNT broadcast teams.
The result? A number that looks like the regular season, or at least not far off from it after Turner combined four channels (TNT, TBS, truTV, Max). For context, the NBA Playoffs first round opening weekend averaged 4.15 million last postseason (and those games were all on one channel).
So, even in Season Tournament elimination games got received by sports fans like…a regular season affair. And yes, we’re basing success on viewership, because that was the whole point of the tournament, even if nobody quite says it out loud. When you bring this aspect up in the sports media space, you’re likely to get hit with a defensive speech from a fellow media member about how the basketball was good, therefore, etc. Other responses include the assertion that more basketball is good if you like basketball. All that might be compelling to people who are already NBA fans, but this was about bringing in the casuals. And brought in, they were not.