ABC enjoyed a bit of a ratings boost on Tuesday night as the Milwaukee Bucks secured their first NBA title in 50 years, but the expanded audience for Game 6 wasn’t sufficient to overcome weaker deliveries during the start of the series.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the Bucks’ 105-98 win over the Phoenix Suns averaged 12.5 million viewers, making it the most-watched NBA broadcast since Game 6 of the 2019 Finals. With five months and change left on the calendar (and with a slew of Olympics coverage and an entire NFL season still to come), the deciding frame now stands as the 26th most-viewed program of 2021.
All told, this year’s Finals averaged 9.89 million viewers on ABC, which marks a 34% drop compared to the pre-pandemic Warriors-Raptors series two years ago (14.9 million). Discounting last year’s displaced Lakers-Heat showdown, which closed out in October and twice went head-to-head with NBC’s Sunday Night Football, Bucks-Suns is now the second least-watched NBA Finals in the modern Nielsen era.
The Spurs’ 4-0 sweep of the Cavs in 2007 remains the league’s official low-water mark, averaging just 9.29 million viewers.
As much as ratings for this year’s series may have suffered from the absence of a major-market franchise—as the nation’s 11th-largest collection of TV homes, Phoenix isn’t exactly a one-horse town, although No. 37 Milwaukee’s 921,920-household base is relatively modest—perhaps nothing got in the way of an ABC ratings run quite like America’s aversion to summer TV. Per Nielsen, primetime PUT levels (industry argot for “People Using TV”) were down 23% versus 2019, when the Finals aired during the standard late-spring stretch.
Nowhere were the TV usage numbers more stark than during Saturday night, which coincided with Game 5 of the Bucks-Suns set. A mere 59 million viewers were watching TV as Milwaukee took a 3-2 lead in the series, a shortfall of 28.8 million compared with the number of Americans who were in front of the tube during the corresponding broadcast in June 2019. The NBA is unlikely to repeat the experiment; as it is, last week’s game was the league’s first Saturday-night Finals outing in 39 years.
In keeping with TV’s greying user base, the 2021 Finals drew a somewhat older crowd than in years past, as the median age of the ABC audience was 49.5 years. That’s up from 47.1 years in 2019 and 46.3 years in 2018, but still far younger than the usual liver-spotted broadcast TV crowd. By way of comparison, the Finals audience was younger than all but five network entertainment programs—all of which were part of Fox’s Sunday animation block. (Over the course of the 2020-21 broadcast season, 64 shows delivered a median audience age 60 years and up.)
If the TV turnout was disappointing, the results are even less edifying in light of the fact that the final deliveries were inflated by the baked-in out-of-home ratings. Nielsen officially began incorporating the bonus audience impressions culled from restaurants, bars, gyms and other public venues last September, an add-on that may have lifted this year’s NBA Finals numbers by some 10%.
For all that, ABC still made a bundle off the Finals, booking an estimated $250 million in ad revenue before it performed the requisite make-good adjustments for its advertisers. Game 6 currently stands as the network’s second most-watched broadcast of 2021, trailing only the Jan. 10 AFC Wild Card Game (Ravens-Titans, 19 million viewers).