As NBA And NHL Playoffs Reach Final Round, Disney And Warner Bros Discovery See Ratings And Ad Sales Surge In Respite From WGA Strike

Given the anxious vibes in the entertainment business of late, the NBA and NHL playoffs have been a welcome throwback to happier times.

Strong live tune-in for Disney’s ABC and ESPN and Warner Bros Discovery’s TNT has kept advertisers happy and bolstered the companies’ assertions about sports at last month’s upfront events for media buyers. The momentum has come as the WGA strike has sidelined late-night shows and other linear mainstays and increasingly put a crimp in production.

Game 1 of the NHL Stanley Cup Final is Saturday night between the Las Vegas Golden Knights and Florida Panthers. The NBA Finals tipped off last Thursday, with the Denver Nuggets beating the Miami Heat, and Game 2 is set for Sunday night on ABC.

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Both media giants are hoping the championship series, which are best-of-seven, last six or seven games. While several series have been lopsided in both sports, the NBA playoffs have had two sweeps out of 14 series to this point, and the NHL has had only one out of 14.

In large part because of its dramatic swings and 7-game length, TNT’s broadcast of Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals averaged 11.9 million viewers — the third-biggest NBA rating in the network’s history. Entering the final round, the NBA playoffs had been averaging 4.71 million viewers across ABC, ESPN, TNT and NBA TV, the best viewership since 2012. Game 1 overnight numbers indicated a 5% dip from 2022, but that audience is more than respectable given that Miami and Denver have much bigger media footprints than those of last year’s finalists, the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors.

Hockey has drawn similarly healthy playoff tune-in. Even after two less-than-scintillating conference finals, viewership is at a four-year high, up 2% from a year ago to 1.14 million viewers on ESPN, ABC and TNT. The network’s coverage of the Cup Final will be the first time any of the four major U.S. sports will be exclusively found on cable TV.

The ratings momentum has helped scatter advertising sales, with Disney and WBD continuing to write business right through the action. At last month’s upfronts, Disney’s presentation at the North Javits Center included several entertainment segments, but sports took center stage. Advertising President Rita Ferro welcomed guests like Serena Williams, Peyton Manning along with top on-air talent, including ESPN’s recent recruit, Pat McAfee. Warner Bros Discovery cited the WGA strike in scaling back much more than other presenters, with executives carrying the message and Lord Stanley’s Cup, the object, taking the place of customary appearances by athletes and studio hosts.

One of Ferro’s key deputies, Jim Minnich, SVP of Revenue & Yield Management, tells Deadline the category mix has broadened out for the Finals compared with earlier playoff rounds, particularly with entertainment brands. “The Finals have historically been a high-demand area for the studio business based on time of year, but we have seen recent growth from the streaming services as well,” he said. Television and Cable TV Stations as a category has replaced Beer on the list of top buyers from the conference finals to the final round.

While the near-term boost in advertising is a plus, larger financial decisions loom for both companies. The NBA’s current rights deals expire in 2025, meaning next year will see exclusive negotiating windows opening for Disney and WBD. Execs at both companies have been pressed about their plans, with WBD chief David Zaslav initially declaring that the rights weren’t a must-have before later adopting a more neutral tone. Ponying up billions — the league is said to be looking to bring in anywhere from $50 billion to $75 billion for a re-up — would come at an inopportune time, with Disney and WBD combining to wring $10 billion in costs from their respective companies over the past year.

Hockey is in a comparatively more settled place. After a decade and a half with NBCUniversal, the NHL struck new multi-year rights deals with WBD and Disney in 2021, with the companies reportedly paying more than $4 billion collectively over the life of the pact.

A key variable in the NBA bidding will be whether a streaming player could enter the mix, as Prime Video did in the last round of NFL rights talks. With the meltdown of regional sports networks, there is growing talk of the league itself trying to hold back rights, particularly for streaming, or more deals structured along the lines of what the Phoenix Suns have engineered. The team, along with its WNBA sibling Phoenix Mercury, has shifted to a dual model of a subscription streaming outlet and free broadcast network telecasts.

On WBD’s May earnings call, Zaslav was asked again for his NBA outlook. “There’s lots of ways” for a revamped deal to satisfy multiple parties, he said, invoking a deal in the UK with the company’s BT/EuroSport subsidiary. Under that agreement, BT/EuroSport carries, by Zaslav’s estimate, 90% of Champions League soccer matches and then produces the other 10%. Amazon streams the 10%, a structure similar to a prior NFL arrangement for Thursday Night Football before Prime Video began its exclusive, self-produced streams in 2022. “We produce that content for [Amazon CEO] Andy Jassy,” Zaslav said of UK soccer. “They promote to us, we promote to them. And the economics of that deal were very favorable for us.”

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