As expected, the absence of superstar ratings magnet LeBron James and the virtual elimination of an entire U.S. media market has put a damper on the TV turnout for the NBA Finals. But take a step back from all the performative rending of garments and gnashing of teeth and the deliveries for the Golden State-Toronto series don’t exactly represent a catastrophic failure for advertisers or for the league itself.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, ABC’s two Finals broadcasts averaged 13.6 million viewers and an 8.0 household rating, which marks a 24 percent and 22 percent decline, respectively, compared to the first two sets of last year’s Warriors-Cavaliers sweep (18 million/10.2). And as much as the ratings squeeze is hardly a welcome development, it’s also unlikely to put a dent in the ABC/ESPN ad sales team’s revenue projections.
Extra free throw
Having guaranteed at least a five-game series with their 5-point victory in Toronto Sunday night, the Warriors ensured that ABC will book a minimum of $230 million in NBA Finals ad sales. Standard Media Index estimates put last year’s haul at $182.8 million, down 12 percent compared to the $208.7 million generated by the five-game 2017 series. In other words, ABC is already playing with house money and unless the bottom completely falls out, the network won’t be on the hook for a ruinous amount of makegoods/audience-deficiency units.
The last time ABC took a hit on the NBA Finals was back in 2007, when the San Antonio Spurs swept LeBron and the Cavs 4-0 in front of a relatively crabbed national TV audience of 9.29 million viewers. Those average deliveries and ABC’s 6.2 rating/11 share still stand as the all-time low-water mark for the NBA Finals.
At present, the Dubs-Raptors showdown is shaping up to be the lowest-rated Finals since 2009—which, as it happens, was also one of those exceedingly rare years in which LeBron James failed to appear in the NBA title series. His participation in four consecutive Finals duels with Golden State helped the league draw its biggest ratings since the Jordan era, and the seven-game comeback set in 2016 closed out on an 18-year high of 30.8 million viewers.
At home, James
To put LeBron’s disappearing act in perspective, the last time the future Hall-of-Famer missed the postseason altogether (2005), hip-hop star/sideline irritant Drake was finishing out his last season on the Canadian teen sudser “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” Steve Jobs was still dreaming up what would become the iPhone and TV’s highest-rated scripted show, “Desperate Housewives,” averaged 23.7 million viewers, of whom 13.5 million were members of the adults 18-49 demo. So it’s been a while.
Speaking of Drake, the singer’s much-ballyhooed jawing with Dubs forward Draymond Green after Toronto’s Game 1 win was followed by the tourney’s most viral moment to date. After an injury-riddled Golden State squad held on to top the Raps in Game 2, banged-up Dubs stars Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant absolutely clowned their trollish pal in a postgame exchange that lit up the internet. “See you in the Bay, Aubrey,” Thompson snarked, subbing in the name printed on the obstreperous sub-6-footer’s birth certificate. “You weren’t talkin’ tonight, were ya? Bum-ass.”
(As crummy as the Knicks are, at no point has anyone on New York’s pro hoops team been compelled to call one of the swells on Celebrity Row a “bum-ass.” Vegas lists the odds of a Knickerbocker ever leveling that particular epithet at, say, Beyoncé, at 10000-1.)
A quick word about the North-of-the-Border ratings for the Canada Truthers out there. Toss the Raps-Dubs deliveries via TSN, Sportsnet, CTV2 and RDS into the stateside mix and the average audience for the first two games of the Finals swells to 17.5 million viewers, down just 3 percent versus ABC’s year-ago average (18 million). And while this certainly makes a case for the NBA’s global ambitions, inasmuch as it demonstrates that overall fan interest hasn’t wavered, it’s also worth noting that U.S. advertisers aren’t terribly concerned with the Canadian audience. The ad loads on those four networks are entirely different from what airs on ABC, and in some cases the products and services being shilled up North aren’t available in the Yew Ess of Ayyy. (You can keep your Bacon Cheddar Garlic Loaf, 241 Pizza.)
More bang for the Bucks?
While there’s no sense in making a comparison between an entire sovereign nation and a mid-sized U.S. media market, it’s somewhat interesting to speculate on how this year’s ratings would have looked if the Bucks had prevailed in the Eastern Conference Finals. Milwaukee boasts a population that’s roughly 20 times the size of Moose Jaw, and Wisconsin’s largest DMA includes around 850,000 TV households. Add to that base the six remaining Badger State media markets and you’re looking at a net loss of some 2.18 million TV homes without much of a rooting interest.
The brands that thus far have pumped the greatest amount of marketing dollars into ABC’s NBA Finals coffers include five film studios, presenting sponsor YouTube TV, three auto manufacturers and a pair of fast-food restaurant chains. Per iSpot.tv data, Columbia Pictures has aired spots for three summer titles (“Men in Black: International,” “Spider-Man: Far From Home” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), while Universal has invested in a number of ads to promote its horror flick “Ma,” the ampersand-crazed popcorn movie “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Jackson” and the animated feature “The Secret Life of Pets 2.”
Other studios looking to the NBA to help get fannies in seats this summer are Twentieth Century Fox (“Ford v. Ferrari,” Marvel’s “Dark Phoenix”), Disney Pixar (“Toy Story 4,” “Onward”), Warner Bros. (“Shaft,” “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”) and Paramount (“Terminator: Dark Fate,” “Rocketman”).
Also in the Finals mix are official NBA sponsors Kia, State Farm, Taco Bell, AT&T Wireless, American Express and PepsiCo’s Gatorade and Mtn Dew.
Game 3 of the NBA Finals tips off on ABC Wednesday at 9 p.m. EDT. While Thompson is listed as questionable and Durant is out, the homecoming Dubs are currently pegged as 5.5-point favorites.