The Milwaukee Bucks mashed the reset button on the 2021 NBA Finals Wednesday night, securing a single-digit home court win that whittled the series down to a best-of-three and all but ensured that ABC would walk away from this meeting of smaller-market teams a quarter of a billion dollars richer.
After a couple of one-sided games and an early display of domination on the part of the Phoenix Suns that seemed to bear all the earmarks of an unmemorable five-night coast, Giannis Antetokounmpo teleported his way from the stripe to the cylinder to stifle the “oop” part of a Devin Booker-to-Deandre Ayton relay that would have knitted up Game 4 with just 76 ticks left on the clock. The block effectively quashed the Suns’ bid to go up three games to one before heading back to Phoenix, and arguably gave the Finals its first can’t-miss moment.
Milwaukee’s 109-103 victory put an end to a string of lopsided contests—the margins of victory in the first three frames averaged out to a less-than-compelling 14.3 points, with Game 3 clocking in at a whopping 20-point spread—and gift-wrapped a guaranteed sixth outing for ABC. Once a network is guaranteed at least six rounds of championship-grade play, the pressure to hit ratings targets and manage for the margins all but evaporates, as both the number of eyeballs trained on the action and the amount of ad revenue the network takes in begin to soar.
According to Standard Media Index data, ABC booked $250.7 million in ad sales during the Raptors-Warriors sextet in 2019, a benchmark that appears to be within reach this time around. The cost of 30 seconds of in-game airtime is up near $600,000 a pop at the high end, and given the inevitable rate increases that accompany the higher ratings of a sixth game, the network is now playing with house money.
Historically, the sixth game of an NBA Finals lays out the welcome mat for 20 million viewers or more, although even a seminal series like the 2008 Celtics-Lakers showdown can show signs of fatigue if the scoreboard shorts out. While this late-aughts edition of basketball’s greatest rivalry was the first of its kind since the 1987 Bird-Magic scrap, the deciding game was compulsory viewing only for fans who call ice-cream sprinkles “jimmies.” The Celtics rolled to a 39-point victory, and a TV crowd of 24 million viewers dwindled to 16.9 million—a 3% drop from the previous game.
If 20 million viewers for the sixth broadcast of Bucks-Suns is likely out of reach—the audience would have to more than double (+122%) in size between Game 3 and Game 6, which is something that has happened exactly never—that figure is well within reach if a seventh game is required. That sort of turnout will not only keep ABC from being buried under a pile of make-goods, but it would also go a long way toward drowning out a lot of the chatter about the NBA’s waning popularity.
Here’s something to keep in mind when the ratings come in for the deciding game of these Finals: According to Nielsen data, the number of households that have been parked in front of their TVs this month is down 21% compared to the TV usage rates in June 2019, when the Raptors and Warriors participated in the last pre-pandemic title tilt. There are 11.5 million people who were watching TV two years ago who’ve since gone off to apply their attention to other pursuits, a broadcast diaspora that’s likely been exacerbated by the rhythms of the summer season. (July is the month in which Americans have always watched far less TV, and that cyclical avoidance, borne of vacation days and repeats, seems to have been amplified by a vaccination-boosted return to summer sociability.)
The series returns to Phoenix Saturday night before rotating back to Milwaukee next Tuesday. If things are still knotted up after Game 6, the 2021 NBA campaign will end in the desert on July 22. Normal awaits on the other side—knock wood—but in the meantime, the Bucks’ reclamation efforts may be seen as a microcosm of a chaotic year in which things went from horror to hopeful over the course of a few months. And you don’t have to be a Wisconsinite or an ABC suit to cheer for that.