Bad news first: The 2020 NBA Finals will go down in the books as the league’s lowest-rated title tilt since ABC first began airing the full series 50 years ago. Sunday night’s 106-93 victory over the Miami Heat gave the Los Angeles Lakers their first championship in a decade and earned LeBron James his fourth ring, and yet the TV numbers were in no way commensurate with the 81-day success story that played out inside the Orlando bubble.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the six-game Laker-Heat set averaged 7.45 million viewers and a 4.0 household rating, a turnout that ranks well below the league’s previous low-water mark. The San Antonio Spurs’ 2007 sweep of LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers averaged 9.29 million viewers and a 6.2 rating, deliveries that reflected the essential joylessness and unsustainable trajectory of that particular series.
The average audience that tuned in for ABC’s six broadcasts was half the size of the crowd that took in last season’s Raptors-Warriors showcase, which aired in the NBA’s traditional June window. Household ratings, the metric against which much of high-impact sports is priced and guaranteed, were down 55% year-over-year.
While nobody at NBA headquarters was exactly turning cartwheels over the ratings declines, the shrinkage wasn’t entirely unanticipated. There were plenty of warnings signs along the way: after the audience for the first round of the playoffs fell 26%, the numbers continued to diminish as postseason play progressed. The Conference Finals were down 35% with an average draw of 4.17 million viewers, while the combined ratings for the Lakers-Nuggets and Heat-Celtics series were off 41% to a 2.3.
The median age of ABC’s NBA Finals audience was a rosy-cheeked 46.1 years, down from last year’s 47.4 years. This is in keeping with the league’s outsized popularity among younger viewers; by comparison, the 2019 World Series on Fox reached an audience with a median age of 56.9 years, a slightly older crowd than NBC delivered last month with its coverage of the NHL Stanley Cup Final (54.5).
Much of the postseason erosion can be chalked up to the temporal dislocation of pandemic basketball and a whole lot of less-than-generous scheduling. Of the 42 first-round games, 28 were televised outside of primetime, the window in which the number of people watching TV is at its highest during any given day. But even when optimal nightly tipoff times were arranged, the fierce competition from football and other high-end sports made it all but impossible for the NBA to gain ground during the Finals.
The overstuffed fall sports calendar presented few opportunities for the NBA to command a captive audience. Not only were Games 3 and 6 scheduled directly opposite NBC’s Sunday Night Football, TV’s highest-rated primetime program, but Game 5 had to contend with the deciding frame of an American League Divisional Series battle between the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays. (MLB’s top-rated franchise by a country mile, the Yankees had featured in eight of baseball’s most-watched broadcasts since the shortened began on July 23.)
Some nights were more claustrophobic than others: in addition to NBC’s Vikings-Seahawks game last Sunday night (15.1 million viewers/8.4 rating), Game 6 of the NBA Finals also squared up with the opening salvo of the American League Championship Series on TBS. If you think baseball’s network partners aren’t going to miss the Bombers, think again; Game 1 of the Astros-Rays series averaged 2.07 million viewers and a 1.1 rating, or less than a third of the 6.11 viewers/3.6 rating Fox scared up a year ago with its analogous ALCS opener. The Yankees-Astros opener was the second highest-rated game of Fox’s six-game set, trailing only the clincher (Game 6, 7.47 million/4.4).
Despite the logistical impracticalities of trying to assess ratings performance in the midst of an unprecedented fall sports schedule (not to mention an election cycle that routinely siphons off and redeposits viewers in the environs of the cable news networks), an awful lot of people seem eager to ascribe the NBA’s declines to a backlash over the league’s embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban yesterday addressed the NBA Finals ratings plunge on Megyn Kelly’s podcast, characterizing the assertion that politics played a role in the declines as “nonsense.” While the host pushed back on his assertion that other sports are facing equally dire ratings shortfalls, Cuban reiterated his point: “I don’t think it has anything to do with politics, I just think we don’t have the match-up and the storylines, and we didn’t do a good job promoting it.”
Again, this will change no one’s mind—odds are, most of us have come to a conclusion re causality a long time ago and another round of public debate isn’t going to suddenly shake our convictions—but if you’re interested in an insider’s take, the NBA ratings discussion begins at the 36-minute mark.)
While Cuban may have muddied the waters a bit with his metaphor about woke racehorses, his greater point is unassailable. Disruption has done a number on the sports TV marketplace, and even the most apolitical thoroughbred isn’t immune from the predations of the fall glut. Ratings for the race portion of NBC’s Kentucky Derby broadcast (9.26 million/4.8) were down 43% year-over-year to a 20-year low, a likely result of airing fourth months out of sequence. The Stanley Cup Final deliveries plunged 61%, the Indianapolis 500 took a 32% hit and the final round of the PGA’s U.S. Open careened to an all-time low.
The turnout for individual sporting events aside, it’s become impossible to ignore how much the overall TV base has withered since the year began. According to the official Nielsen data against which some $76 billion in TV advertising is negotiated, broadcast TV usage is down 28% season-to-date, with an average crowd of 22.1 million viewers tuning into the Big Four networks each night. A year ago at this time, the average delivery was 30.3 million viewers.
When all is said and done, the success of the NBA’s weirdly elastic 2019-20 campaign can be measured in discarded swabs and clawed-back dollars rather than mere commercial impressions. As with the NHL’s own bubble initiative, biodome basketball was a triumph of logistics over an implacable virus. Extreme precautions were taken, and not a single player or coach tested positive for the coronavirus. After Rudy Gobert unwittingly became Patient Zero of the sports world, his diagnosis having initiated a chain reaction of league closures that began with the NBA’s own shutdown on March 11, Adam Silver and the 22 bubble franchises managed to finish what they’d started back in October 2019.
As a result, the NBA’s network partners were spared some punishing revenue losses, while the league itself reinforced its value as a generator of youth-skewing content. If mounting make-goods and lower ad rates prevented TNT, ESPN and ABC from matching their collective playoff ad sales haul of a year ago ($730 million), the money that was booked during this strange postseason was a lot more substantial than the triple zeros the networks would have faced if the bubble experiment hadn’t worked out.
And the ad sales figures don’t factor in all the affiliate revenue the networks kept raking in as a result of their being able to fulfill their programming agreements with cable, satellite and telco operators. The stacks of money may not have reached as high as they did in 2018-19, but the cash that did come through (early estimates put the postseason total near the half-billion-dollar mark) is still legal tender. In keeping its season afloat, the NBA kept its network partners from taking on water. If it’s unfortunate that not as many fans were around to bear witness to this salvage effort, the smaller audience in no way invalidates the effort.