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NBA national networks dunk 20% audience advance ahead of Christmas telecasts

The NBA’s national cable carriers are wielding strong audience momentum as the league prepares to unwrap a five-pack of games on Christmas.

Through telecasts of Dec. 19, the NBA, citing data from Nielsen Holdings, said telecasts on ESPN (US), TNT (US) and NBA TV (US) have averaged 1.2 million viewers, a 20% audience advance from the corresponding span during the 2016-2017 campaign.

The combined viewership on TNT and ESPN has averaged 1.9 million watchers, 21% more than a year ago.

The gains come as the NFL suffers through a second straight season of audience declines. With two weeks remaining in the 2017 regular season, NFL game telecasts were down 9%. Still, America’s most popular televised sport has averaged 15.1 million viewers per game, versus 16.6 million at that stage of the 2016 campaign.

When it comes to the 2017-2018 NBA season, ESPN has averaged 1.81 million viewers for 30 telecasts through Dec. 15, an 18% jump from 1.53 million watchers for the same period last year. The delivery represents ESPN’s second-best start since it began televising NBA games in 2002-03, trailing only the 2.21 million average audience for the 2010-2011 campaign, the first season that LeBron James played with the Miami Heat.

ESPN’s three most-watched games this season: 3.28 million for Warriors-Oklahoma City on Nov. 22; just under 2.70 million for Boston-Los Angeles Lakers (featuring highly hyped rookie Lonzo Ball) on Nov. 8; and 2.43 million for Warriors-New Orleans on Oct. 20.

For its part, TNT is in the midst of its most-viewed early season since the 2013-2014 campaign. The 16 telecasts — most of which have aired head-to-head with NFL "Thursday Night Football" — through Dec. 14 averaged 2.1 million viewers, a 25% leap from the same point last year. A TNT spokesman said the network has also registered double-digit demo gains with male and viewers 18 to 34, 18 to 49 and 25 to 54.

The network got off to a strong start with the Oct. 17 season opener with Cleveland-Boston garnering 5.6 million viewers, 95% more than the 2016-17 season starter.

League-owned NBA TV, meanwhile, is off to its best start since 2010-2011. Over 41 telecasts — mainly simulcasts of regional sports network presentations — through Dec. 19, the service has scored 25% amelioration to a 365,000 average.

NBA TV’s "Players Only" coverage on Tuesday nights — the network’s weekly marquee live telecast in which its on-air talent provides the game commentary — was up 10% to 464,000 watchers on average.

The Dec. 19 Players Only match-up of Cleveland-Milwaukee drew 704,000 viewers, surpassing the 622,000 the night before for Warriors-Lakers as the network’s most-watched game so far this season.

ABC (US) will initiate its 2017-18 NBA game slate on Christmas with a triple-header, highlighted by a Cavaliers-Warriors confrontation — the teams have met in the last three NBA Finals — at 3 p.m. ET, followed by Washington-Boston at 5:30 p.m. and Houston-Oklahoma City at 8 p.m.

The broadcasts will be book-ended by cablecasts — the quintuple-header tips off with Philadelphia-New York at noon on ESPN, which will be flanked by a second-screen experience offering an above-the-rim camera view of the game on the ESPN app, and closes on TNT with Minnesota-Lakers at 10:30 p.m.

As was the case last year, the NBA Christmas contests will vie for viewers' attention against a pair of NFL games: NBC (US), NFL Network (US) and Amazon Prime will present Pittsburgh-Houston at 4:30 p.m., while ESPN has Philadelphia-Oakland in its final 2017 "Monday Night Football" telecast.

On Christmas 2016, NFL Network scored its best-ever audience with 14.8 million viewers for Pittsburgh-Baltimore in the late-afternoon window, while NBC’s prime-time telecast of Kansas City-Denver averaged 21.4 million watchers.

Cavaliers-Warriors, which overlapped to some extent with the first NFL contest a year ago, averaged 10.2 million viewers, the most for an NBA Christmas game in the 2:30 p.m. window in a dozen years.

Steelers-Ravens also intercepted viewers from ABC’s coverage of the NBA San Antonio-Chicago affair, which tipped off at 5:30 p.m. and averaged 5.5 million watchers. The Kansas City-Denver NFL match-up went up against a pair of ESPN NBA night games — Oklahoma City-Minnesota and Lakers-Los Angeles Clippers averaged 1.4 million and 1.6 million viewers, respectively.

ESPN’s 2016 Christmas opener between Boston and New York counted 3.75 million average watchers, including streamers, 17% more than Miami-New Orleans in the same noon window in 2015.