Cavaliers-Warriors Rivalry, Playoff Surge May Not Be Enough to Lift NBA Finals Ratings to 2016 Heights

When game one of the NBA Finals tips off Thursday night on ABC, it will mark the third straight year that the league’s playoffs have ended with the Cleveland Cavaliers facing the Golden State Warriors. The burgeoning rivalry between the two teams will be the dominant Finals narrative after conference playoffs that saw increased viewership from last year. But it may not be enough to lift this year’s series to the same ratings height as 2016’s.

Total viewership for the 2017 playoffs is up over last year, despite a high number of blowouts and predictable outcomes — particularly in the Western Conference, where Golden State swept through its bracket with 16 consecutive wins and no losses. Across ABC, TNT, ESPN and NBA TV, playoff games averaged 3.8 million. That’s up 4% from 2016.

That fact bodes well for the finals. But it would be a heavy lift for this year’s series to match last year’s in ratings. That’s because the 2016 Finals averaged 20.2 million viewers — the most for a championship series since 1998 and the most ever for an ABC-broadcast finals.

“I don’t think they’re going to get anywhere near that,” University of Miami sports-administration professor Windy Dees said of the chances for this year’s Finals viewership to match last year’s.

The 2016 series was a perfect storm of ratings-driving storylines — Golden State’s run at a Finals repeat after breaking the NBA record for regular-season wins; Cavaliers star LeBron James’ effort to deliver on his promise to bring a long-anticipated pro-sports championship to Cleveland; and the Cavaliers’ comeback after falling behind 3 games to 1 to Golden State. Game seven, which was decided in the last minute of play, averaged 31 million viewers, making it the third most-watched game in NBA history.

With Golden State having added star forward Kevin Durant and boasting a healthy lineup, many analysts expect the Warriors to win the series in five or six games — denying ABC and corporate sibling ESPN, which produces the broadcaster’s NBA telecasts, a ratings-driving seventh game.

“Game sevens are where, if you look historically, you start hitting those 20 million-plus numbers,” Dees said. “If you don’t have a game seven, it’s hard to do that. The way ratings go in these things, two main factors play in — the matchup of teams and the excitement of play.”

But with fans now accustomed to seeing Golden State and Cleveland meeting on the Finals stage, ABC could be stuck with a short series lacking fresh narratives with which to hook viewers.

The upswing in playoff ratings thus far, however, has been a pleasant surprise following a 2016-17 NBA regular season that saw viewership decline. Regular-season games across the four networks averaged 1.2 million viewers, down 6% from the 2015-16 season. That downturn was in line with ratings trends for other major sports leagues such as the NFL, which in 2016 was down 8% in total viewers from the previous season.

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • Wanda Sykes, Mike Epps to Star

    Wanda Sykes, Mike Epps to Star in Multi-Camera Comedy Series for Netflix

    Wanda Sykes and Mike Epps are headed to Netflix. The streamer has ordered a multi-camera comedy series starring the two comedians titled “The Upshaws.” The series centers on a working-class Africian American family in Indiana struggling to make it work and make it right without the blueprints to do it. Sykes will executive produce and [...]

  • Vader Streams Shuts Down

    Vader Streams Shut Down by Hollywood Studios

    A coalition of Hollywood studios and streaming companies announced on Tuesday that they have shut down Vader Streams, which was once a popular source of pirated TV content. The service went offline in early May under mysterious circumstances, leading to speculation that the operator had either absconded or been forced out of business. The Alliance [...]

  • Søren-Sveistrup

    Netflix Teams With 'The Killing' Creator for Crime Thriller 'The Chestnut Man'

    HAUGESUND, Norway  — Further expanding its Scandinavian footprint, Netflix has announced its second Danish original series, “The Chestnut Man,” a police thriller based on “The Killing” creator Søren Sveistrup’s popular novel. The streaming giant will team with Sveistrup’s SAM Productions, minority owned by Studiocanal, part of Vivendi Canal Plus Group, to deliver this noir-influenced literary [...]

  • Writers vs Agents Packaging War WGA

    ICM Blasts Writers Guild Over Withdrawal of State Lawsuit

    ICM Partners has slammed the leaders of the Writers Guild of America over its decision to withdraw from its state court lawsuit in favor of refiling the action in federal court. The agency, which was sued in April by the guild and eight WGA members over charging allegedly illegal packaging fees, issued a statement Tuesday [...]

  • succession

    'Succession' Renewed for Season 3 at HBO

    “Succession” has scored an early Season 3 renewal at HBO. The news comes as the critically-acclaimed drama series is just two episodes into its second season. Season 1 of the series was recently nominated for five Emmy Awards, including for best drama series. “We are elated that ‘Succession’ and its exploration of wealth, power and [...]

  • Kaley CuocoHilarity for Charity Sixth Annual

    Kaley Cuoco HBO Max Series 'The Flight Attendant' Sets Creative Team

    The creative team set to bring Kaley Cuoco’s dark comedy series “The Flight Attendant” to HBO Max has taken shape. The series, which tells the terrifying story of a flight attendant (Cuoco) who wakes up in the wrong hotel, in the wrong bed, with a dead man and no idea what happened, has tapped Susanna [...]

  • Mayim Bialik

    Mayim Bialik Signs Warner Bros. TV Production, Talent Holding Deal

    “The Big Bang Theory” star Mayim Bialik is expanding her relationship with the production studio behind the long-running CBS comedy. Bialik and her newly launched Sad Clown Productions banner have signed an exclusive multi-year production deal with the studio, coupled with a talent holding provision for her acting services. Bialik is bringing on former Chuck [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content