NBA drafting off NFL mojo to become year-round TV sport

Interest in Thursday's NBA draft surged after reports of players swapping teams. The NBA Finals earlier this month were the highest rated since 1998.

Plotlines worthy of a soap opera, new heights of athletic excellence and social media potency have combined (among other factors) to make the NBA a year-round TV sport almost on par with the NFL.

ESPN said metered market ratings for the NBA draft coverage hit 2.7 million viewers, up 13% from 2016, making it the most-watched program for the night on either broadcast or cable. The network also said streaming skyrocketed, with average minute streaming audience hitting 135,200 viewers, up 55% from 2016, and 1.153 million unique viewers soaring 107%.

The league is coming off its biggest NBA Finals since Michael Jordan's last title in 1998, with an average of 20.4 million total viewers, up from 20.2 million viewers for last season’s seven-game series. This year’s finals also averaged an additional 434,000 digital streaming viewers, according to ESPN, which produces ABC’s NBA telecasts.

With interest surging after a predraft trade between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, plus a host of other roster moves being rumored given the Golden State Warriors' statement win in the just-wrapped NBA Finals, the draft became a hot topic all week. It trended on Twitter, stimulated normally microscopic viewership on the NBA network and, of course, ESPN, which forked over a princely sum for basketball rights (as did Turner) and is eager to make it pay dividends.

Ironically, the billions spent on the league's TV deal are filling teams' coffers and making them more willing to acquire big-name talent. Kevin Durant, the longtime Oklahoma City superstar, was acquired by the already-dominant Warriors last season, and made the difference in this year's finals. Seeing the gap between the Warriors and the rest of the league, plenty of teams are willing to use their new money on talent. Even LeBron James, whose moves to Miami and then back to Cleveland in recent years have been huge stories, could be on the move again, along with top-tier free agents like Indiana's Paul George. Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls, another A-lister, is headed to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Those chess moves, plus the arrival of what many experts are touting as the strongest draft class in years, has stoked interest in the draft. The NBA has become a year-round obsession with many viewers, who follow the action across social and digital platforms even when they aren't able to tune into game telecasts during the off-season.

Last year, the draft stumbled a bit and was the least-watched since 2012, drawing a shade under 3 million viewers on ESPN, off 20% from the 2015 edition. Then again, 2015 was the most-watched draft in history, with an average of 3.7 million viewers.