Lakers, Celtics should draw big audience

ABC has gotten what all pro hoops TV rights holders wish for but rarely receive — a winner-take-all Game 7 of the NBA Finals, set for tonight.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics will vie do-or-die style for the NBA title, in only the fourth NBA Finals Game 7 since 1984 (when those two signature franchises also went the distance). Based on ratings for the first six games of this year’s championship series, the finale should easily attract an audience of more than 20 million viewers.

Tuesday’s Game 6, a Lakers rout that tied up the series at 3-3, drew a 7.1 rating/21 share among adults 18-49 and 18.0 million viewers overall, according to Nielsen. That made it the most-watched of the five Game 6′s since ABC’s coverage of the NBA Finals began in 2003. Compared with last year, when the Lakers defeated the Orlando Magic in five games, average audience levels are up by 2.1 million viewers overall and 12% in the demo.

In 2005, when the last NBA Finals Game 7 happened, the teams were Detroit and San Antonio — a matchup that lacked the marquee value of the NBA’s oldest rivals. That game drew 19.0 million viewers overall. Before that, the 1994 Game 7 between the New York Knicks and Houston scored 26.1 million viewers for NBC.

The most popular NBA Finals in recent memory was in 1998, when NBA legend Michael Jordan, in his last moments in a Chicago uniform, led the Bulls over the Utah Jazz in six games. Every game of that series drew an audience of at least 25 million for the Peacock, peaking at 35.9 million for Game 6.

Basketball and baseball have both suffered from a dearth of championship Game 7′s in recent years. The World Series has maxed out four times in the past 21 years, the last in 2002 between the Anaheim Angels and San Francisco Giants.

Hockey has had better luck, with the Stanley Cup going to a seventh game five times since 2000.

The NBA has an advantage over baseball in ending when the primetime season is over. With the exception of “So You Think You Can Dance,” CBS, NBC and Fox have nothing but repeat programming scheduled in primetime tonight.

(Rick Kissell contributed to this report.)

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