Ratings prove the ’21 Play-in is a huge success for the NBA
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Ratings prove the ’21 Play-in is a huge success for the NBA

LeBron James wanted the NBA’s Play-in creator fired. But the way the tournament is going so far, he should get a raise.

After the Wizards beat the Pacers 142-115, there’s only one game left before the Play-in wraps up and all the postseason matchups are set. And although no detailed assessments will be done until the Warriors play the Grizzlies tonight, the data ESPN presented yesterday is indicative enough that the NBA’s iteration of one-and-done is a huge success.

The game between the Lakers and the Warriors drew an average audience of 5.6 million viewers and peaked with 6.1 million viewers in the final half-hour, according to ESPN’s Ben Cafardo. It was reportedly the most-watched NBA game on ESPN since the ’19 Western Conference finals between the Warriors and the Trail Blazers, beating last season’s Play-in on ABC by 190 percent, becoming the fourth most social Primetime telecast this year, only behind the Grammy Awards, Super Bowl LV, and Round 1 of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Even the matchup between the Grizzlies and the Spurs, although not nearly as anticipated, became the 3rd most-watched NBA game on ESPN for the 20-21 season with 2.29 million viewers. Tonight’s elimination game featuring Memphis and Golden State has the potential to top that.

The opening game of last year’s Finals between the Lakers and the Heat drew 7.41 million viewers — at the time the lowest NBA Finals viewership since at least ’94 – continuing the three-year-long downward trend of Game 1 Finals viewership. Game 3 averaged a 3.1 rating and 5.94 million viewers, becoming the lowest-rated and least-watched Finals game ever. On average, the six-game series between LA and Miami recorded an-all time low Finals ratings with only 7.5 million viewers.

The politicization of the league, which permeated the whole bubble experience, played a part in NBA’s historic viewership decline. Even experimenting with the Play-in idea didn’t help the ratings to the extent the association had hoped for. But this year is different.

Even though the tourney elicited pushback from players – most notably LeBron and Luka Dončić – the excitement level it brought to the fans points to a potential switch in popularity trajectory moving forward. Of course, the NBA can’t count on two generational talents such as James and Curry to match up in the Play-in every year — that in and of itself undoubtedly induced a boost in ratings. But they can continue to work towards making the end of the regular season games more exciting and meaningful. The ’21 Play-in is, without a doubt, a step in the right direction.