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.

More TV

  • The New York Times Building NYC

    The New York Times' Made-for-TV Endorsement Missed the Mark (Column)

    At some point during the New York Times’s special endorsement episode of its branded series “The Weekly,” the paper’s editorial board muses on the manner in which Donald Trump has changed how we envision what a potential president could look like. After the brief and energetic snippet we’re shown of a visit from candidate Andrew [...]

  • Jennifer Aniston accepts the award for

    SAG Awards: Jennifer Aniston Lands Apple TV Plus Its First Major Hollywood Win

    Apple TV Plus is on the board. The new streaming service won its first major Hollywood honor on Sunday, as “The Morning Show” star Jennifer Aniston picked up a SAG Award for best female actor in a drama. The win capped a busy Sunday for the streaming service, which held its first-ever presentation at the [...]

  • Curb Your Enthusiasm

    'Curb Your Enthusiasm' Music: How the Italian Tuba March Found Its Way to Larry David

    When “Curb Your Enthusiasm” returns for its much-anticipated 10th season it does so with it a musical theme that’s a prime example of recognizable sonic branding and has become synonymous with comedy in our complicated times: “Frolic” by composer Luciano Michelini. But surprisingly, this comic march for tuba, mandolin and piano wasn’t specifically written for [...]

  • Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik, Lee Jeong-eun,

    SAG Awards 2020: The Biggest Snubs and Surprises

    The Screen Actors Guild Awards are always the first peer group ceremony of the new year, giving those who make films and television series the chance to celebrate each other. Going into the 26th annual ceremony, which took place Jan. 19, the nominees were a mix of industry veterans and beloved favorite and some newer-comers, [...]

  • Tanya Tucker and Brandi Carlile backstageAmericana

    Tanya Tucker and Brandi Carlile Set as Dynamic Duo for Grammys

    Country legend Tanya Tucker and her producer, Brandi Carlile, will perform together on the Grammys  in one week, both singers announced on their respective social media accounts Sunday. Wrote Carlile: “Let’s. do. this.” (One of the first responses on Carlile’s Instagram came from a fellow Seattle musician, Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron: “Hell yes!”) “I wanted you [...]

  • The Mandalorian Baby Yoda

    Baby Yoda Roots for Green Bay Packers in NFC Championship Game

    Baby Yoda is a Cheeesehead. Disney chief Bob Iger tapped the breakout star of “The Mandalorian” to show his support for the Green Bay Packers just as the NFL’s NFC Championship Game got underway on Sunday evening. The Packers are battling the San Francisco 49ers for a shot at the Super Bowl. The Kansas City [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content