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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.

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