After years of working to reduce the wear and tear on players, the NBA’s schedule makers are now trying to make life easier for the league’s viewers.
The NBA released its 2019-20 schedule Monday, and the big winners are East Coast fans who have been forced to burn the candle at both ends. For the upcoming season, which begins Oct. 22, the league made a concerted effort to reduce the number of nationally televised games that tip off at 10:30 p.m. Eastern time. Those late starts were no trifling matter; last season, they often featured LeBron James’s Los Angeles Lakers and Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors.
Overall, the NBA’s national television partners will air just 33 games with 10:30 p.m. tip times, down from 57 last year. ESPN, which airs games Wednesdays and Fridays, will eliminate 10:30 p.m. tips from its Wednesday night doubleheaders, replacing them with 9:30 and 10 p.m. starts.
TNT, which airs games Tuesdays and Thursdays, will make a similar change, airing just two 10:30 p.m. games on Tuesdays, down from nine last year. The Tuesday nightcaps will largely shift to 10 p.m. (TNT’s popular “Inside the NBA” programming lineup on Thursday, however, will continue to air most of its doubleheaders at 8 and 10:30 p.m.)
James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers, sure to be major ratings drivers, will play 10 nationally televised games at 10:30 p.m., down from 19 last season. Curry and the Warriors will occupy that time slot 11 times, down from 18.
The earlier-start-time initiative — which amounts to load management for fans — comes after superstars such as James, Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George flocked to West Coast franchises. The three teams with the most TNT appearances this season — the Lakers, Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers — are based in California.
Some observers wondered whether James’s 2018 move to the Lakers, after he had spent his entire career in the Eastern Conference, would inspire immediate changes to the national television schedule. That didn’t happen, but underwhelming 2018-19 ratings, coupled with this summer’s westward migration of talent, may have convinced Commissioner Adam Silver to act. SportsMediaWatch.com reported in April that ESPN and ABC posted flat ratings in 2018-19, and TNT experienced a 12 percent dip.
In addition to the usual darlings, the NBA is going all-in with Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans. The No. 1 draft pick is set to debut against the Toronto Raptors on opening night (TNT), visit the Denver Nuggets on Christmas (ESPN) and face No. 2 pick Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies on Martin Luther King Jr. Day (TNT). The Pelicans also will appear on Halloween and the day before Thanksgiving, as well as multiple ABC weekend broadcasts.
The rest of the NBA’s Christmas Day quintupleheader features the Raptors hosting the Boston Celtics (ESPN), the Philadelphia 76ers hosting the Milwaukee Bucks (ABC), the Warriors hosting the Houston Rockets (ABC) and the Lakers and Clippers doing battle (ESPN or ABC). James’s Lakers and Leonard’s Clippers also will face off on opening night (TNT), and the Clippers will visit the Warriors on Oct. 24 for the first game at Chase Center in San Francisco (TNT).
The number of back-to-backs — when a team plays on consecutive nights — has been reduced to an average of 12.4 per team. That is an all-time low and a steep drop from 19.3 five years ago. No team will have more than 14 back-to-backs, and none will play four games in five nights.