After waving their sports flags proudly last week at their upfronts pitches to ad buyers, Disney and Warner Bros Discovery are confronting a head-scratching situation with the NBA and NHL playoffs.
The conference finals in both basketball and hockey — broadcast by WBD’s TNT and Disney’s ESPN and ABC — have been remarkably lopsided. Until Tuesday night’s victory by the Boston Celtics in the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals (on TNT), all four best-of-seven series were threatening to be 4-0 sweeps. The Denver Nuggets completed a sweep of the LA Lakers on Monday night, and the Las Vegas Golden Knights and Florida Panthers are each up 3-0 in the NHL.
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Such uneven results are never good for broadcasters in multi-game series and will leave them with lighter-than-expected ad revenue despite plenty of ratings momentum. Last year, ad revenue from the NBA playoffs alone reached $842.4 million. “They could lose tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars in ad revenue depending on how many games are not played,” media consultant Brad Adgate told Deadline. “It’s pretty much a nightmare scenario, at least for this round.”
Disney declined to comment on the development and a WBD rep did not immediately respond to a sweep inquiry.
The ad shortfall has materialized even as viewership has been healthy. Heading into the conference finals, the NBA playoffs had delivered their biggest overall viewership since 2011 and the NHL had posted double-digit increases over last year’s levels. TNT for the first time is slated to carry the NHL Stanley Cup Final in an alternating-year arrangement with Disney.
Boston’s win on Tuesday averted what would have been the first dual sweeps in the conference finals since the East/West league structure was established in the 1970-71 season. In the NHL, the last time both conference finals have been decided in four straight games was 1992, with that year’s Cup final also a sweep. The Panthers are looking to eliminate the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday in the Eastern Conference Finals.
While many ad slots in the NBA and NHL playoffs are bought well in advance during the upfronts, a significant amount of inventory is transacted in the scatter market. A person familiar with Disney’s sales process said the robust viewership story has helped offset some of the downside of not having as many games. While entertainment programming, in part due to the ongoing WGA strike, has continued to struggle, live sports has continued to be a bright spot.
No team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in an NBA playoff series and just three teams in that kind of hole have ever forced a Game 7. If Boston extends the Eastern Conference Finals, WBD would be the beneficiary, as TNT is airing the series after ESPN and ABC carried the Lakers-Nuggets series.
The flurry of wins by one side could lead to an odd lull in the sports calendar. The NBA has set June 1 as the firm starting date for the NBA Finals, with ABC and ESPN running a significant marketing campaign aimed at capturing casual viewers. Boston and Miami play Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Thursday. The NHL has marked June 3 as the beginning of the Stanley Cup Final, though the league could move it up if both finalists are set this week.
As far as the NBA Finals, Adgate is among those who sees plenty of upside for Disney in a Nuggets-Heat matchup. “I could see it getting to more than 20 million viewers,” he said. Denver, which was one of four ABA teams to continue on after its merger with the NBA, has never before been to the Finals. Miami, while lacking in household-name talent, has become a novel attraction this year as a No. 8 seed knocking off heavily favored opponents, plus it plays in a good-sized home market. The opposite outcome from the conference championships, though, would have been guaranteed box office. “Lakers-Celtics is like Dodgers-Yankees,” Adgate said. “They’ve faced each other 12 times before and it’s always been a major draw.”