NBA Finals Ratings Surge Counters Downward Trend for Live Sports

Massive viewership for Game 7 of last year’s NBA Finals lifted the series to the highest ratings for a championship matchup since 1998. But this year, the Golden State Warriors’ dominance in the playoffs — cruising undefeated through the Western Conference bracket — made the possibility that the series would again go to seven games seem remote. Prior to the Finals, NBA executives were quietly tamping down ratings expectations.

It took Golden State only five games to dispatch the Cleveland Cavaliers. But the Finals still saw average viewership increase — up from an average of 20.2 million last year to 20.4 million. That growth is slightly at less than 1%. But with a less competitive series and ratings for live sports experiencing declines across the board, growth of any kind is welcome news for the NBA and its television partners — and indicative of the league’s growing value in the sports-television landscape.

“We were thrilled how the ratings were after the series,” says Julie Sobieski, VP of programming for ESPN, which produced the Finals telecasts for broadcaster and Walt Disney Co. sibling ABC. “Not surprised in the sense of interest around this historic series, but really thrilled. To be up significantly and have this be the most-watched ever since 1998 just having gone through five games as opposed to seven last year — it was fantastic to see how much interest there was.”

That interest was driven by the Cavs and Warriors, who have faced each other in the last two finals — with Golden State having won in 2015 and Cleveland winning in 2016. This year, the Warriors added one of the league’s best players in Kevin Durant, introducing a new factor in the competition and a fresh narrative (Durant’s quest for his first title) with which to hook viewers.

The combined appeal of Durant, teammate Stephen Curry, and the Cavs’ LeBron James and Kyrie Irving provided ample compensation for any fatigue fans might have felt watching two familiar teams face off.

“I do think that fans wanted to see all of that star power every night,” Sobieski says. “There was also a belief that Cleveland could have come back and won any of those games at any time.”

That belief had fuel added to it in Game 3, when Cleveland nearly pulled off an upset victory after Golden State won the first two games by a wide margin.

“I was at that game,” Sobieski says. “That place was rocking right down to the last minute of that game, and obviously that does make a huge difference. It was certainly a turning point in the series and sent everyone back to their seats for Game 4.”

In Game 4, Cleveland ruined the Golden State’s shot at getting through the playoffs without a single loss, pulling off an impressive 137-116 victory. The next game would turn out to be the most-watched Game 5 of any since 1998 with an average of 24.5 million viewers.

The viewership counters recent downward trends in live-sports ratings. NFL viewership was down 8% in 2016 from the year prior. NBA regular-season action was down 6% this season from last.

That trajectory reversed in the playoffs, which saw viewership increase 4% year-to-year across ABC, TNT, ESPN, and NBA TV through the first three rounds. The upswing provided a positive end to a season that was the first covered under a new contract that sees ESPN and TNT paying a combined $2.66 billion per year to broadcast NBA games through the 2024-25 season.

“We had no reservations that we were going to see fantastic numbers out of the NBA,” Sobieski said. “It why we did the deal that we did with these guys. They’re an ascendant sport.”

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