In what will be a win for early risers, East Coast viewers and washed-up parents everywhere, the NBA is moving the start of weekday Finals games forward by half an hour this year. Game 1 of the 2023 NBA Finals is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. ET on Thursday, June 1.
This is a significant step up from last year and recent league history, when Finals games started at 9:07 p.m. (expect games to start around 8:35 p.m. ET in June) . The decision to move the games came last July following discussions between NBA executives and their counterparts at ESPN and ABC, where the NBA Finals will air.
“We want to do everything we can to maximize viewership across the board,” said ESPN vice president of programming Matt Kenny. “And there are years where teams come from the Pacific time zone, and other years from other time zones, and regardless, we want to do everything we can to present the NBA in the best way possible, to expose the league to as many fans as possible.and certainly for the NBA Finals.We are really excited about the 8:30 start time.
The earlier start times reflected the league and ESPN trying to balance the needs of fans in different time zones, the arena experience for the games themselves, and the broader national audience. While the NBA hasn’t seen a particular drop in viewership late in games if games are close, and ratings even tend to peak later in games, Gregg Winik, president of content and executive producer of the league, said the total number of households in use across the country drops after 11 p.m. ET.
“We circled 8:30 p.m. EST for the weeknight TV broadcast schedule as the ultimate playtime,” Winik said. “But realizing it’s not more convenient for hometown fans in participating markets. So on the edges, we might have a local departure at 5:30 a.m. PT, or 8:30 a.m.; neither of those- This isn’t perfect, obviously we still have teams participating in every time zone, so we’re trying to reconcile that and kind of make it the best possible scenario for everyone.
The new start time could cause problems for fans on the West Coast, where games will now start at 5:30 p.m. instead of six, but it’s a compromise the league and its TV partner are willing to make. While three of the teams currently remaining in the Western Conference operate on Pacific Standard Time (PST) and 14 of the last 22 Finals have had a team from that time zone, this reflects the reality of television programming. The majority of potential viewers do not live in the West.
According to data provided by ESPN. In 2019 and 2022, despite the presence of the Golden State Warriors in the finals, the audience size in the east was about twice that of the PST for both demographic groups. Winik said more than 60% of US households are in the Eastern or Central time zones.
While an earlier start time should help the NBA and ABC maximize their viewership in the east, Winik thinks it won’t hurt the gaming experience for games that might be in the west. , if a team from that time zone makes it to the final.
“Our perspective in the final, local fans have adapted to the start times, whether it’s sooner or later and we don’t think that will have an impact on getting people into the building or getting out of the building. ‘affect their experience,” Winik said.
The time change could help ratings continue to rebound for the NBA. After reaching a nadir in 2020 during its post-season bubble, the ratings for the Finals have slowly been on the rise. Around 12.4 million viewers, on average, watched last year’s final matches, up 22% from the previous year, but still down 2.7 million from 2019 .
Ratings have skyrocketed for the league this post-season, reaching levels not seen since before the cord-cut hit the media industry and overall viewership size began to decline. Game 1 of the Los Angeles Lakers-Golden State Warriors series was the most-watched second-round game in cable TV history, according to Warner Bros. Discovery, the parent company of TNT. The Warriors and Sacramento Kings have consistently posted big numbers, as have other series.
Winik said the new start time is meant to stay long-term after a long history of late tips. He remembers NBA Finals games on NBC in the 1990s starting at 9:20 p.m., he said, but after receiving comments from fans, even friends, who asked why the games were starting so late, the NBA is letting things start a little earlier.
(Photo: Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)