Despite star-studded lineup, TNT’s NBA pre and post game ratings don’t necessarily dominate ESPN’s

ESPN helped by running post game show in SportsCenter's time-slot


Sports Media Watch does an excellent job keeping tabs on audience deliveries and posting the results promptly online. So I requested some comparisons of rating performances covering TNT’s Inside the NBA and ESPN’s NBA post game show.

We looked at the first three games of the conference finals:

Conference finals – ESPN – Golden State Warriors vs. Portland Trail Blazers

Conference finals – TNT – Toronto Raptors vs. Milwaukee Bucks

Readers might be perplexed by the results. So remember that ratings are often diluted by inherent or extraneous factors as spelled out in these bullet-points. The hard numbers follow.

  • Paulsen of Sports Media Watch cautions that ESPN had a bigger lead-in number to its pre and post-game shows because ESPN’s in-game Golden State-Portland coverage out-numbered TNT’s Toronto-Milwaukee telecasts. In other words, the Western Conference Finals themselves did a better rating than TNT’s Eastern Conference finals. This natural pull effected ESPN’s viewing numbers for its periphery pre and post programming.
  • Toronto’s participation might not have helped TNT’s ratings south of the border.
  • ESPN’s post-game, featuring Scott Van Pelt and guest, generally airs within SportsCenter. This likely gives ESPN a deep-rooted edge because SportsCenter has a rich heritage of broad sports appeal.
  • The numbers are also somewhat muddled in the sense that TNT’s post game show runs longer and well past midnight when there are fewer viewers overall watching television.
  • Staring times are a major factor. Post game shows, although they begin late, draw better than pre-game shows because fans out west aren’t home yet. In the east, viewers haven’t quite settled in either when pre-game shows begin.

These collective disadvantages posed a strong challenge for TNT, despite its on-air arsenal of an enormously popular quartet, featuring Ernie Johnson, Shaq, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley.

ESPN’s set of Michelle Beadle, Paul Pierce, Chauncey Billups and Jalen Rose plod along. Their sound is generally unpredictable and inconsistent. At times, the show has a professorial feel and at others it’s either forced, distant, filled with inanities or the talent is yukking it up. But the numbers don’t lie. ESPN holds its own.

Audience Numbers in Millions for Post-Game Programming, juxtaposing the first three games each network ran:

ESPN Game 1: Tue, May 14:  2,517

TNT Game 1: Wed, May 15:  2,843 -winner


ESPN Game 2: Thu, May 16:  2,847 -winner

TNT Game 2: Fri, May 17:  2,125 


ESPN Game  3: Sat, May 18:  2,816

TNT Game 3: Sun, May 19:  3,016 -winner

Perhaps a better comparison is a look at the pre-game shows the same nights, albeit they ran earlier in the evening, prior to primetime and early out west. Here, ESPN doesn’t have the residual advantages of a strong built-in time-slot like SportsCenter

Audience Numbers in Millions for Pre-Game Programming, juxtaposing the first three games each network ran:

ESPN Game 1: Tue, May 14:  1,030 (pre-game aired earlier because of Draft Lotto) 

TNT Game 1: Wed, May 15:  1,466 -winner


ESPN Game 2: Thu, May 16:  1,645 -winner

TNT Game 2: Fri, May 17:  1,236


ESPN Game  3: Sat, May 18:  1,507 – winner

TNT Game 3: Sun, May 19:  1,123


Finals ratings performance to-date:

Game 1 did a 7.9 rating and 13.31 million viewers , down 21% in ratings and 25% in viewership from last year and down 25% and 29% respectively from 2017. Both earlier matchups were Cleveland (LeBron) vs. Golden State.

According to Sports Media Watch, Toronto’s win in game #1 ranks as the lowest rated and least-watched NBA Finals game in a decade. It snapped a streak of 52 straight finals games with at least an 8.0 rating and 14 million viewers.

Sunday’s Game 2 had a 10.2 overnight rating, down 20% from both last year and 2017. The 10.2 tied the lowest Game 2 overnight since 2009. 



David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year + industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History and The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts.

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