The NBA Finals begin tonight, and one of the storylines of the Celtics-Warriors spectacle will be TV viewership.
That’s in part because the league’s audience consumption has been culture war fodder for years, but also because the numbers are a major popularity indicator for a major league jockeying for the No. 2 spot in America’s heart (and wallet) after the NFL.
The pandemic, atop the ongoing cord-cutting trend, over the past two years has upended the TV industry in a way that requires a mental recalibration of viewership expectations for what is now normal. Live sports being delayed, played out of schedule and without fans, siphoned viewers just as the rest of television also saw declines. Some critics say the league’s numbers suffered because of anti-racism and other social justice messaging.
Whatever the reasons may be, the fact is that the NBA Finals are drawing half of the viewers they did five years ago. Recovering some of that audience would help the NBA’s quest for more lucrative TV deals after the current long-term pacts worth $24 billion end in 2024.
What should help is that the NBA Finals are back on their regular calendar schedule, with full arenas, and two powerful TV-draw teams in Golden State and Boston.
Whatever the TV numbers turn out to be, it’s unfair to judge the NBA’s popularity because on the past couple of seasons’ finals averages because they were affected by external factors, said Jon Lewis, founder of Sports Media Watch, which has tracked live sports viewership since 2006.
“They wanted to make (2020 and ’21) out as the NBA’s true popularity,” said Lewis, who maintains a database of NBA Finals viewership.
The finals were not particularly impressive audience-wise before the pandemic, he added, but a recovery to 2019 numbers to remain essentially flat isn’t a terrible thing, particularly when indexed against the numbers for the rest of television.
“It’s obvious the NBA is not where it was,” Lewis said. “(But) the NBA is in better shape right now in regard to its competition.”
That said, if these finals do better TV numbers than recent years, it’s not a time for particularly loud trumpets.
“You’re going to get automatic three-year highs, maybe four-year highs,” Lewis said. “It’s not as impressive as it’s going to sound. If we’re being real, beating the last three years is not that great of a feat.”
While revitalized Golden State has been the golden child of the league’s improved regular-season and playoff viewership in 2021-22, having a gold standard legacy franchise like Boston in the finals should be helpful.
“The Warriors are not the only show in town for the NBA,” Lewis said. “That’s good news for the league.”
And as a reminder, the NBA TV numbers prior to 2020 didn’t include out of home viewership (watching at bars, restaurants, hotels, watch parties at other homes) that can add real heft to live sports audience totals.
So what should we expect from this year’s finals in terms of viewership? I sought out an array of industry insiders to offer their predictions. Game 1 tips off at 9 p.m. ET tonight on ABC.
Jon Lewis: It should surpass 2019. I’d say 16 million to 16.5 million. I would be surprised if it matched the Cavs-Warriors finals. Maybe it’ll catch ‘18 if goes six or seven games. It’ll do better than the last two finals.
Sara Fischer, media reporter at Axios: Definitely surpasses 10 million, but I don’t think it reverts back to pre-pandemic levels. Probably 12-14 million.
Douglas Pucci, editor at Programming Insider: The NBA and ABC lucked out with Golden State vs. Boston. Entering the playoffs, the top two seeds in the West (Phoenix and Memphis) and the top East team (Miami) are not yet marquee teams, while Philadelphia and Brooklyn both underwhelmed. Warriors-Celtics are an easy sell to the casual fan. The NBA playoffs thus far has seen more lopsided scores than usual, but these NBA Finals should be far more competitive and prolonged — just what ABC hopes for. It will last six games with a very potent 14.9 million viewers.
Maury Brown, a senior contributor at Forbes and a longtime sports business journalist: Looking back on 2020 and 2021, it’s surprising how wrong many media pundits (this one included) we’re about viewing habits. ‘Everyone will be trapped inside so viewership will skyrocket,’ was largely the refrain. Come to find out, without fans sports felt cold and distant. Viewership numbers (and Nielsen’s reported undercounting) reflected that. I expect a solid uptick for the 2022 NBA Finals as the Warriors bounce back to their glory and the Celtics remain a cornerstone brand. I’ll say the series will average 16.5 million viewers and could go higher if it reaches a Game 7.
Richard Deitsch, The Athletic media reporter: This is a great series for sports viewership nerds. Golden State has been the NBA’s best national viewership team for many years and Boston is a historic franchise with a great television market. The difference in average viewership for any NBA Finals between a sweep and seven games is massive and this one in particular could really do some numbers if it goes long. The benchmark for me is the pre-COVID 2019 NBA Finals between the Raptors and Warriors. That series averaged 15.15 million viewers. I think this one will beat it. Put me down for 16 million and I would not be surprised if my guess is low.
Andrew Marchand, sports media columnist at the New York Post: 16.7 million. There will be a bounce back effect from having two marquee teams and from behind back on the regular schedule.
Naveen Sarma, senior director, corporate ratings, S&P Global Ratings: I’ll go with 20 million – I think the finals will benefit from having the Celtics who are one of the two marquee national names in the sport. The Warriors will also help bring in the West Coast audiences.
Robert Seidman, a longtime TV ratings analyst: 16.9 million — Higher if a 7-game series, lower if a sweep. The combination of teams plus out of home viewing will erase memories of record-low viewership for off-schedule finals of the past 2 years and will even eclipse 2019. But declines in pay TV subscriptions and TV viewership more generally will keep it from surpassing 2018 unless the series goes 7 games and there’s little chance of it reaching 2017 levels even if it goes 7.
Kevin Krim, top executive at advertising metrics data firm EDO Inc.: Larger basketball markets in Boston and San Francisco (and a redemption arc for the Warriors) will mean higher viewership for this year’s Finals. But given how well the NBA has promoted the smaller market teams and their stars during last year’s run — Milwaukee and Phoenix in particular — I anticipate that viewership for the 2022 Finals will increase only slightly to 11 million. The main factor driving viewership and ad engagement will be the competitiveness of each game and the series overall, which is something we’ve consistently seen in EDO data.
Bill Shea, The Athletic senior sports business reporter and survivor of the Ted Stepien era of Cleveland Cavaliers basketball: I doubt it’s a sweep, but if that’s what happens, I think we’re looking at 12 million. If it goes a full seven games, I think we hit 15.5 million.
(Photo: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)
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