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Sunday slate puts NBA in prime time, not bed time, in Europe

Cecilio Santibanez

Cecilio Santibanez


NEW YORK (AP) — Sundays aren’t just for touchdowns and tailgates anymore.

While NFL football rules the day in the U.S., European fans are tuning in to the NBA in big numbers for a rare chance to catch live action and still get a good night of sleep.

The league expanded its schedule of Sunday afternoon starts this season, with 20 of the 23 games tipping off at 3:30 p.m. ET. That’s 9:30 p.m. in Spain, home of the European champions and a devoted fan base.

Matt Brabants, NBA senior vice president of global media distribution and business operations, said the games have become “appointment viewing” for fans in the 114 countries and territories in Europe, Africa and the Middle East who will see Minnesota visit Phoenix on Sunday.

And it barely requires any scheduling difficulty for the NBA, since with about 100 international players in the league, nearly every team has somebody the overseas audience wants to watch.

“Finding a team that’s compelling isn’t very hard,” Brabants said, “because you’ve got a team like, for example, the Timberwolves with a number of international players, including Ricky Rubio for example, who’s obviously Spanish and a big hit in Spain that fit easily into the schedule.”

It means some dreaded matinee starts for players, who often practice in the early afternoon but aren’t nearly as interested in playing games then.

“I know I couldn’t stand them as a player. Just hated them,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers, whose team is scheduled eight times at home this season for 12:30 p.m. local starts.

“As a coach, I think every coach loves them because at 5:30 in the evening you’re done with your work for the next day — I mean, selfishly. I just felt like as a player, and it doesn’t matter home or road, that you can’t catch up sometimes. Like if you start off bad, it feels like by the time you wake up, the game’s over.”

At least the players are only tired at game time occasionally. For many international fans, it’s a season-long issue.

A regular 7 or 7:30 p.m. local start in the U.S. means European fans may have to hang in until 3 a.m. or later to watch the end of a live game.

Spanish national team veteran Jose Calderon said his country’s fans are so passionate about the NBA that they do it. But he knows from talking to them that they would benefit from fewer all-nighters.

“When they see you after the season, only thing they say is like, ‘Man, it’s tough. We can’t sleep,’” the New York Knicks guard said. “Because at the end of the day, you got to wake up, or stay up. It’s like 2 in the morning or 3 in the morning, depending if some days (we’re) in the West or whatever, so it’s tough.

“You’ve got to go to work the next day, so people are always like, ‘I’ve got to sleep. It should be earlier.’”

The Sunday schedule the NBA introduced last season addresses that. Fans are treated to a number of strong games, particularly in January, when the matchups scheduled are the ones being shown on ABC’s national TV coverage.

Brabants said teams are supportive of the matinees, even knowing they compete with the NFL. They’ve been a hit overseas, where viewership for Sunday games increased 32 percent last season over 2013-14, when the games weren’t being shown at a consistent time.

But Brabants said the benefits go beyond ratings. Social media interactions — the league has more than 920 million likes and followers across all platforms — increase during the games, since more people are awake, and TV partners are putting more resources into pregame and postgame studio shows to serve their larger audiences.

“Because they know they’re going to have many more people tuning in than they would for a game at say 2:30 in the morning,” Brabants said.

Latvia, home of Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis, was added as the 114th country or territory being reached just last week. And the league has already started looking beyond Sundays, with 11 Saturday games scheduled for 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. ET.

That’s too late for prime time, but still makes an easier bed time.

“The earlier the better, but 5 o’clock on a Saturday in particular, a later afternoon start is still a very good thing for our business and we’ve seen more engagement on those Saturday games as well,” Brabants said.