If an awful lot of guys named Sully and Fitzy were wicked pissed when the Miami Heat denied them the opportunity to eyeball a 13th NBA Finals showdown between their Boston Celtics and the hated Los Angeles Lakers, ABC doesn’t share that sentiment. In landing LeBron James and Anthony Davis’s quest to silence South Beach’s fresh-to-death squad of three-point assassins, the Disney network will post its highest ratings since it aired the Oscars back on Feb. 9.
We’ll take it a step further: Despite the myriad hardships of the Orlando playoff bubble, in which overall playoff ratings fell nearly one-third compared to last season’s springtime slate, ABC can still expect the Lakers-Heat series to put up numbers that won’t be surpassed until early January, when the broadcaster and its cable sibling ESPN will share coverage of the first NFL Wild Card Game.
Given the physicality and tenacity of the Heat—in terms of sheer annoyance, its 2-3 zone defense is about as disruptive as a dinner-hour telemarketer with a quota to fill—and its seemingly limitless roster of sharpshooters (in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, 20-year-old rookie Tyler Herro exploded for a record 37 points from off the bench), Miami is likely to keep things tight with LeBron & Co. Oddsmakers like the Lakers winning their 17th title in six, and the deeper the series runs, the higher the TV turnout.
If to say that the entire league’s fortunes rest on the broad shoulders of King James is to court hyperbole, the ratings for this year’s lockdown playoffs would seem to back up the claim. In going 12-3 in postseason play and brushing aside Portland and Houston and Denver, the Lakers drew the biggest TV numbers. Not only was L.A. the only team to average more than 4 million viewers per game in the quarterfinals, but its showdown with the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals drew half-a-million more viewers each night than did the analogous Celtics-Heat series.
Indeed, the Lakers were the NBA’s top draw both before and after the 140-day coronavirus hiatus. Through its Sept. 26 clincher against Denver, L.A. has featured in 11 of the league’s top 20 biggest TV draws, a roster that includes a five-point loss to the Clippers in the marquee Christmas Day game simulcast on ABC and ESPN. In addition to its nine playoff appearances that cracked the top 20, the Lakers also drew an outsized crowd on Jan. 31, when the team returned to the floor for the first time after Kobe Bryant’s death. (Given the temporal dislocation of quarantine life, that 127-119 loss to the Blazers may seem as if it happened a lifetime ago.)
If a great deal of the NBA’s ratings prospects depends upon a deep run, historical precedent says ABC has a fighting chance at getting to the promised land that is Game 7. Over the course of his nine previous NBA Finals appearances, LeBron has featured in four Game 6 broadcasts, averaging 22.1 million viewers and a 13.5 rating while going the distance three times. Per Nielsen, LeBron’s Game 7 matchups helped ABC scare up 28.5 million viewers and a 15.6 rating; most recently, Cleveland’s 93-89 victory over Golden State in the deciding game of the 2016 Finals averaged 31 million viewers and a 15.8 rating, making it the highest-rated NBA broadcast since Game 6 of the 1998 Finals. (For the sake of comparison, the very last frame of Michael Jordan’s six championship series drew an all-time record 35.9 million viewers and a 22.3 rating.)
Of course, as we’ve learned throughout these last three months of unprecedented sports profligacy, the price of having everything happen at once is ratings erosion. All told, the 77-game NBA postseason averaged 2.61 million viewers and a 1.6 rating, marking a 32% and 35% decline versus last year’s regularly-scheduled springtime rounds. With an average draw of 4.17 million viewers and a 2.3 rating, the Conference Finals fell 35% and 41%, respectively, compared to the 2018 round (which featured a pair of seven-game series, of which the most-watched game averaged 14.9 million viewers), and was down 55% versus 2018.
As with the NHL postseason, a good deal of the NBA’s playoff declines may be chalked up to tougher scheduling comps and unorthodox time slots. The first two rounds of Orlando hoops included no fewer than 41 non-primetime telecasts; in other words, 62% of those 66 contests aired outside the window when TV usage is at its highest.
The biggest challenge that lies ahead for ABC is a Finals schedule that’s practically riddled with boobytraps. The Lakers and Heat are slated to collide with the NFL twice over the course of the series, with Game 3 going head-to-head with NBC’s Sunday Night Football (Eagles-49ers), while Game 5, if necessary, will have to reckon with Fox’s first Thursday Night Football window of 2020. That opener pits Tom Brady and the Bucs against the undefeated Chicago Bears, and while Thursday night games don’t pose the threat of the big Sunday windows, it’s worth noting that Tampa appeared in the NFL’s biggest showdown (25.8 million viewers, 13.2 rating) to date.
If a sixth game is in the cards, it’ll run up against NBC’s primetime Notre Dame-Florida State broadcast (the Irish are currently ranked No. 5 in the AP 25 poll, despite having a game postponed due COVID-19 concerns), while a seventh game would run afoul of either the second or third game of the AL or NL League Championship Series.
As much as all the bloody-minded sports competition and weird, Daliesque melting clock vibes have made the NBA Finals a tougher sell than would have been the case in a “normal” year, ABC is still on pace to rake in far more ad revenue than it does on its other marquee night. While last year’s Academy Awards broadcast raked in nearly $150 million in commercial cash, the six-game 2019 NBA Finals earned another $100 million above and beyond that figure, per Standard Media Index. Budgets may be watertight and the live-sports landscape more claustrophobic than it’s ever been, but the NBA loyalists that have stuck with the league throughout this unpredictable season are all-in on the possibility of another ring for the King.