While the NBA season technically begins around Halloween, conventional wisdom states that the casual fan checks in shortly after Christmas. The Golden State Warriors are dunking on that trend. The defending NBA champs have started the season 15-0 and are beating their opponents so handily -- they shelled the Memphis Grizzlies, a perennial playoff contender, by 50 points earlier this month -- that ESPN felt compelled to change its Sunday programming to get one of their games on the air.
Instead of airing the season finale of the 2015 World Series of Poker, the Worldwide Leader in Sports opted instead to show the Warriors’ effortless dismissal of the Denver Nuggets, a Western Conference opponent that is openly rebuilding. While ESPN has a long history of tapping in to games that have the potential to be historic, showing live look-ins of baseball games where pitchers are on the verge of throwing perfect games, for example, this is the first time in years the network has pre-empted an entire show to put on a basketball game.
While the NBA has come a long way from the 1970s, when its Finals games were run on tape-delay, its broadcast partners have not always tried to adjust who -- or what -- is on the league’s schedule. Prior to Sunday night’s game, ESPN had used its flex capabilities a handful of times to switch out of unappealing matchups. But with a pricey new TV deal about to kick in, this sort of thing could become more common. Starting next year, ESPN will pay the NBA $1.4 billion per year for rights to its games, up from $485 million this season.
ESPN will have to make sure it works to justify that investment. The Disney-owned sports broadcaster has lost 7 percent of its subscribers in the past year, dropping to 92 million subscribers paying $6.50 per month.
But if ever there was a team that qualified as appointment television during the regular season, it is this Warriors squad. After going 67-15 last season on their way to their first NBA title in 40 years, the Oakland team has started this season even hotter. They are the highest-scoring team in the league and, according to Basketball Reference, they have the top-rated defense too.
The team’s aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball drew an enormous audience during the NBA Finals in June, and with an off-season in between, their games have become appealing for even the casual fan. Last Wednesday’s game against the Toronto Raptors, a middling Eastern Conference squad, drew a record audience on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, the regional sports network that airs Warriors games. The very next night, a highly anticipated matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers drew an audience that was over 150 percent bigger than the audience that TNT attracted last year.
Sunday night's victory made the Warriors the third team in league history to open a season with 15 consecutive wins. The team will look for their 16th consecutive win Tuesday, in a nationally televised home game against the Los Angeles Lakers.