NBA Finals ratings predictions, analysis (and more)
nba finals ratings predictions, analysis (and more)

NBA Finals ratings predictions, analysis (and more)

Ratings predictions and analysis, starting with the NBA Finals. With ratings under scrutiny for a third-straight year, how is the NBA really faring? Plus: can the Rangers extend their ratings domination? How will the PGA Tour fare in its first week opposite the LIV? Did anybody watch Rich Strike in the Belmont?

Seven facts, an opinion, and a prediction about NBA Finals ratings

There are a few facts about NBA Finals ratings that may or may not be meaningful. Fact #1: this NBA Finals is up dramatically from the past two years. That means nothing, given the absurd headwinds the league faced in its fanless, football season “bubble” two years ago and the fact that last year’s “return to normal” included Finals games past the Fourth of July. These are the least meaningful three-year highs possible.

Fact #2: excluding the past two years, this NBA Finals is the least-watched through three games since the Spurs’ dreadful 2007 sweep of the Cavaliers, which until the “bubble” was the least-watched NBA Finals of the modern era. Given the teams involved, that is certainly a bracing statistic, and one that is hard to imagine anyone at the NBA or ESPN/ABC truly expected. Nonetheless, it too means little given the broader context (aka fact #3).

Fact #3: television viewing is down significantly from just three years ago. If primetime television viewing is down 26% from even as recently as June 2019, how can one reasonably expect the NBA to defy the same gravitational pull affecting all programming?

Which brings us to fact #4: the NBA is more dominant relative to the rest of television than it was in the past. The NBA audience, and the sports audience generally, makes up a bigger piece of the shrinking pie than it did previously. In the actual business of television, this is the only fact that matters. The first three games of the Finals rank as television’s three highest rated and most-watched programs on a single network in the past month. In 1993, Game 2 of Jordan’s Bulls versus Barkley’s Suns (14.6 rating) trailed reruns of ABC’s “Roseanne” (15.8) and “Home Improvement” (15.2) the same week (Games 1 and 3 did top the sitcoms to rank first and second for the week).

On the other hand, there is fact #5: out-of-home viewing has provided a distinct advantage in historical comparisons that makes this year’s declines even more pronounced than they appear. Yes, television viewing is down 26% from 2019, but to be down double-digits even with the addition of the TV ratings equivalent of juiced baseballs? From a series that included a Canadian team that does not count toward U.S. TV ratings? A series that was, at the time, a surprisingly weak draw?

Fact #6: the NBA is not as popular a television property as it was four years ago, at least in any traditional Nielsen measure. That truly does not matter in terms of the league’s future television money, but it is hard to argue that it does not matter at all. As a sidebar, opinion #1: It is increasingly clear that the NBA from 2009-18 was riding a particular wave that coincided with the prime of LeBron James’ career and included any number of historically great rivals, from the late Kobe Bryant to Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry. That particular era was essentially the “Jordan era” of the post-Jordan era. It ended, arguably, the moment James signed with the Lakers, and now the league is in a transition period much like the one it endured from 1999-08. Then, as now, even the best matchups on paper typically failed to meet expectations set in headier times.

Fact #7: viewership grows the longer a series goes. The Warriors’ win Friday night ensures a Game 6 and gives the NBA a realistic shot — its first, incredibly, in three years — to crack a 7.0 rating and 13 million viewers. It is clear that Warriors-Celtics will not mark the NBA’s return to normal, because the norm of 2018 is not a place the NBA can get to for the time being. Still, after three (likely four) games mired in the 6.0 rating/11 million viewer range, expect Game 5 to give the league its healthiest numbers since it returned from hiatus nearly two years ago.

NBA Finals Game 5: Celtics-Warriors (9p Mon ABC). Prediction: 7.5 rating, 14.2M viewers.

Can the Rangers continue their ratings streak (and their season)?

The Rangers have been the dominant draw of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, playing in the top six and seven of the eight most-watched games thus far. One win tonight not only keeps their season alive, but also ensures a ratings-magnet Game 7 simulcast on both ESPN and ABC Tuesday night. (All that stands in their way are the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.)

So far, every primetime game of the Rangers-Lightning series has averaged at least 2.3 million viewers (the lone matinee, Game 3, pulled 1.96 million). Game 6 should be no different. Look for the Rangers to be in the seven most-watched games of the playoffs as of tonight (and if ESPN is lucky, the eight most-watched as of Tuesday).

NHL Eastern Conference Final Game 6: Rangers-Lightning (8p Sat ESPN). Prediction: 1.4, 2.82M viewers.

Additional predictions

MLB: mostly Cubs-Yankees (7:15p Sat FOX). Two of the biggest draws in baseball headline this week’s FOX regional window. The first two FOX windows this season drew a 1.1 and 1.96 million and 1.1 and 1.81 million. Expect better numbers this week. Prediction: 1.3, 2.15M.

PGA Tour: final round of the Canadian Open (3p Sun CBS). Will the debut of the new LIV golf tour – and the defection of any number of golf stars – affect the ratings for the PGA Tour? The Canadian Open may not be the best gauge. Back on the schedule after a three-year absence, it was not a notable draw even before the hiatus. The 2019 edition drew a 1.7 and 2.63 million. Prediction: 1.5, 2.52M.

Belmont Stakes, race portion (post time 6:44p Sat NBC). The Belmont Stakes had concluded by the time this post was written, and at the risk of spoilers, Rich Strike did not repeat his stirring Kentucky Derby upset. The horse was a borderline celebrity after the Derby, but skipping the Preakness put his underdog story out-of-sight and out-of-mind for more than a month. It seems unlikely that his return to the track moved the needle much for an event that needs a Triple Crown at stake to resonate. Last year’s Belmont had a 2.6 and 4.53 million (pending upward revision). Prediction: 2.8, 4.82M.

Previous predictions

— NBA: Celtics-Heat Game 7. Prediction: 5.7, 10.93M; result: 4.6, 9.88M.
— NHL: Rangers-Hurricanes Game 7. Prediction: 1.7, 3.59M; result: 1.4, 2.79M.
— Indy 500. Prediction: 2.9, 5.63M; result: 2.7, 4.62M.
— F1 Monaco GP. Prediction: 1.0, 1.98M; result: 0.9, 1.61M.
— NASCAR Coca-Cola 600. Prediction: 2.4, 4.74M; result: 2.2, 3.87M.
— PGA Tour at Colonial. Prediction: 2.98M; result: 2.43M.
— MLB: Phillies-Mets. Prediction: 649K; result: 994K.
— WNBA: Phoenix-Atlanta. Prediction: 416K; result: 574K.

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