Crain's Cleveland: Cavaliers' dramatically improved TV ratings are second-best in NBA

In the week leading up to the start of the Cavs’ 2014-15 season, Fox Sports Ohio had already sold almost all of its advertising inventory.

The network’s partners are getting the anticipated bang for their buck. The audience, as expected, has increased as the Cavs have started living up to the lofty preseason expectations.

Sports Business Journal reported this week that the Cavs’ average TV rating of 7.29 on Fox Sports Ohio ranks second in the league. The Cavs’ norm trails only the Spurs, who were generating an 8.08 norm on Fox Sports Southwest.

In addition, the Cavs’ 150% ratings improvement from the 2013-14 season is the NBA’s second-best. The Bucks, with a 323% jump on Fox Sports Wisconsin, lead the league, but their 2.24 ratings average is more than 225% below the Cavs’ norm.

And the numbers are only going up for a Cavs team that won 14 of its final 16 games before the All-Star break.

An industry source told Crain’s that the Cavs’ ratings average is 7.45 (the Sports Business Journal data was collected prior to the conclusion of the first half of the season), which represents a 167% increase from the team’s 2.79 ratings average on Fox Sports Ohio in 2013-14. The latter ratings number — which obviously pales in comparison to any Cavs team featuring LeBron James — still ranked seventh in the league.

Compared to the same number of games in 2013-14, Cavs ratings on Fox Sports Ohio are up 158% this season. Even better: Five of the six highest-rated games were played in the last few weeks.

The six highest-rated Cavs games on Fox Sports Ohio this season are as follows:

Jan. 27, at Pistons: 12.64.

Feb. 2, vs. 76ers: 11.96.

Jan. 28, vs. Trail Blazers: 11.51.

Feb. 6, at Pacers: 10.04.

Dec. 9, vs. Raptors: 9.86.

Jan. 31, at Timberwolves: 9.78.

During the Cavs’ 12-game winning streak, which spanned Jan. 15-Feb. 2, Fox Sports Ohio aired nine contests. Those nine games posted an average rating of 8.95.

The ratings statistics are even more impressive when you consider that 12 of the Cavs’ 82 games are exclusive TNT (seven) and ABC (five) broadcasts — marquee matchups to which Fox Sports Ohio doesn’t have rights. Another factor to consider: a combined 20 of Fox Sports Ohio’s 70 2014-15 broadcasts are on nights in which the audience is split between the local network and ESPN, WUAB, NBA Network and TNT.

During the broadcasts that have included a split between a national network and Fox Sports Ohio, the local channel has won the majority of the time, an industry source said.

The Cavs’ 7.45 ratings average is a little more than a point below the 8.67 and 8.55 norms the team’s broadcasts on Fox Sports Ohio averaged in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons, respectively. During those years, when the Cavs were a combined 127-37 in the regular season, Fox Sports Ohio was reaching an audience of more than 130,000 households per night. This season, an average of about 110,000 households are tuning in.

While not quite where they were five years ago, the Cavs’ ratings are still ridiculous by NBA standards.

Only three teams — the Spurs, Cavs and Thunder (6.38) — have a ratings norm of 5 or better. The Heat are fourth at 4.99, a drop of 27% since James left for Cleveland.

And of the five teams that have had the biggest ratings jump this season, only the Cavs and Bulls (4.74) have norms above 2.24 — meaning three of the five clubs had much lower standards to topple.

As we’ve written in the past, Fox Sports Ohio’s contract with the Cavs runs through the 2015-16 season, and an extension will be much more costly than the network’s reported annual rights payment of $27 million.

Could the Cavs eclipse the $45 million annual rights fee that the Rockets agreed to with CSN Houston in 2012, a local TV contract that Forbes reported in January 2014 was the NBA’s second-richest?

We’ll find out soon enough.

Until then, we’ll be watching — along with many others.