ABC has high hopes for NBA finals

TNT saw 43% bump in viewers during playoffs

It’s not Kobe vs. LeBron, but nobody outside of Cleveland seems to be complaining about the NBA playoff series.

As the NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Orlando Magic begin Thursday on ABC, ratings are expected to remain as strong as they’ve been for cable outlets TNT and ESPN, which have covered the preceding playoff rounds extensively.

TNT, which carried 43 playoff games, saw a 23% increase in the coveted 18-49 demo vs. the playoffs last year and, for the Eastern Conference Finals between Orlando and Cleveland, a 43% bump in total viewers to an average of just over 6 million for the six games.

“We got casual viewers to get excited about the NBA, and they sampled the product,” David Levy, president of ad sales, distribution and sports for Turner Broadcasting, told Daily Variety. “You would’ve thought that Cleveland and Orlando wouldn’t be a big draw, but the players from both teams drew national exposure, even from the smaller markets.”

The net cashed in, especially because 40% of the commercial time was scatter, with the other 60% bought at the upfront before the playoffs began. As the playoffs became more popular — starting with a sensational seven-game series between Boston and Chicago — prices for ad time were increased to correlate with the increased popularity of the hoops action.

Game four of that series was a monster for TNT, delivering slightly more than 10 million viewers. That contest was played on a Thursday, a bonanza for the cabler since it’s the night of the week the studios and restaurants covet most.

ESPN did just as well. The sports cabler earned a 3.7 household rating and 4.8 million viewers for the playoffs — 700,000 more than last year — and the NBA postseason was the net’s highest rated and most viewed ever.

While many were anticipating — and certainly ABC was pulling for — a Finals series between Kobe Bryant’s Lakers and LeBron James’ Cavaliers, the Lakers-Magic looks to be a win for ABC, even outside the L.A.-Orlando markets. (Some are calling this the Disneyland vs. Disney World showdown.)

The Alphabet struck gold last year when the Lakers matched up against their archrival Celtics. That six-game series, which Boston won, averaged 14.9 million viewers per game and a 6.1 rating/18 share in the demo. Game five was highest, with 17.3 million tuning in (7.3/21).

That was a big step up from a ratings-challenged 2007, when San Antonio defeated Cleveland. That four-game series averaged only 9.2 million per game (3.7/12).

This year, with Orlando’s Dwight Howard stepping up as a national figure both on the court and in national commercials for T-Mobile with Charles Barkley, the finals should again be a top draw, certainly more so than if the Nuggets had defeated the Lakers.

“Certainly from a brand standpoint, you can make up with Howard what you lost in LeBron,” said David Carter, principal in the L.A.-based Sports Business Group.