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NBA TV ratings taking take hit during Finals, ending disappointing season

With the 2020-21 season over, NBA TV ratings will continue to be critical as the league hopes for a strong final numbers heading into the offseason

Game 6 of NBA Finals attracts most viewers since 2019 with mixed overall results

The Milwaukee Bucks’ Game 6 win over the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals Tuesday evening wrapped up what was an entertaining season around the Association. The game, broadcast on ABC, also drew 12.5 million viewers. It’s the most-watched championship round matchup since Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals between the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors.

Even then, this pales in comparison to previous years when the NBA drew a ton more viewers. Just look at the past several Game 6 matchups in the NBA Finals and their viewership totals.

Historical Game 6 NBA TV ratings for the Finals

nba tv ratings, nba finals
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
  • 2021 (Bucks-Suns): 12.5 million
  • 2020 (Lakers-Heat): 8.3 million
  • 2019 (Raptors-Warriors): 18.3 million
  • 2016 (Warriors-Cavaliers): 20.7 million
  • 2015 (Warriors-Cavaliers): 23.3 millio

As you can see, the 2020 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat in the bubble proved to be the single least-watched championship round matchup since NBA TV ratings started to be recorded back in 1991. This year’s Finals didn’t draw much more viewers.

There’s obviously a political backdrop to all of this given the divisiveness between star NBA players and those who exist on the right of the rhetorical line. Don’t expect that to change too much moving forward.

Mixed bag as NBA Finals continue

Two medium market teams in Phoenix and Milwaukee were never going to draw huge numbers when it comes to NBA TV ratings. But after some initial struggles with the 2021 NBA Finals continuing, Game 4 saw a major surge in viewership.

According to ABC, its broadcast of the Bucks’ Game 4 win drew an average of 10.25 million viewers. It’s the most-watched NBA Finals outing since Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals between the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors.

That’s the good news. The bad news? All 11 of the least-watched NBA Finals games of the past 14 years have taken place over the past two years. In fact, we have to go back to the 2007 NBA Finals to see numbers that compare to the past two matchups. Even then, seven of the past 11 games in the championship round have drawn less viewers than the least-watched game of 2007 when the San Antonio Spurs swept the Cleveland Cavaliers. Before that, we have to go back two decades to find similar numbers. Ouch!

NBA Finals TV ratings nearing an all-time low

nba tv rating, nba finals
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Game 1 of the 2021 NBA Finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns this past Tuesday drew an average of 8.56 million viewers on ABC, according to Sports Media Watch. While it is up 13% from the opener between the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers in the 2020 Finals inside the Orlando Bubble, it is the second least-watched NBA Finals opener in history. In fact, viewership was down 36% from Game 1 of the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors Finals series back in 2019.

To make matters even more severe when it comes to NBA TV ratings, Game 2 on ABC Thursday evening drew 6.97 million viewers. That represents the third least-watched game since ratings became available back in 1974.

To be clear, this is a dramatic drop off from the height of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors run of four consecutive NBA Finals matchups. How dramatic? Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals drew 31.02 million viewers.

NBA TV ratings share now at an all-time high

“The viewership share for this year’s playoffs — the percentage of people with TVs in use that are watching the NBA — is at its highest since the league first began logging that data during the 2002-03 season. The NBA also happens to feature the youngest audience across major sports, one advertisers covet,” Yahoo! Sports just recently noted.

In terms of recent games in the post-Stephen Curry and LeBron James era of NBA Playoffs, the Association has to be extremely happy. Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns ended in epic fashion. Ratings for that game were also up 66% from last year’s conference finals between King James’ Lakers and the Denver Nuggets.

There’s numerous reasons for fan interest. Among them, fans actually being able to attend games during the NBA Playoffs. That was not the case in the Orlando Bubble due to the COVID-19 pandemic a season ago. Fan interest can be directly linked to actually being able to attend games.

We’re also not seeing the same political rhetoric from both the occupant of the White House and well-known players around the Association.

Whether these numbers keep up remain to be seen. As noted above, neither Curry or James will be playing in the NBA Finals. This is the first time that will be the case since all the way back in 2010. In turn, interest in the NBA Finals could be muted to an extent.

NBA playoff ratings surge in comparison to last season

NBA TV ratings, NBA Playoffs
JBrad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

By now, it’s already known that the Orlando bubble last season was not great for NBA TV ratings. Excitement was brought to a lull with fans not being able to attend games and due to the political divisiveness of the time. That has not been the case through the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs.

According to Sports Media Watch, things are on an upward trajectory. A recent example would be Game 4 of the Los Angeles Lakers’ first-round series against the Phoenix Suns. It drew 5.38 million viewers on ABC, up 63% from a comparable game in the bubble last season. Said game was also the fourth most-watched matchup of the NBA season.

It remains to be seen if the Lakers’ ouster from the playoffs in Round 1 will result in a downward trend for TV ratings. LeBron James is a draw. Los Angeles is the second-largest media market in North America. Add in Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors failing to make the playoffs (three of the five highest-rated NBA games this season involved Curry), and that’s magnified further. The Brooklyn Nets’ ratings for their second-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks will be telling.

NBA TV ratings on a major upward trend during the playoffs

NBA TV Ratings
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Memphis Grizzlies win over the Golden State Warriors this past Friday evening drew 3.63 million viewers on ESPN, making it the station’s second most-watched game of the season. It’s the latest indication that the NBA’s foray into a play-in tournament has been successful.

As for the NBA Playoffs, rating are already outpacing the 2019-20 iteration.

“The opening weekend of the NBA Playoffs averaged 2.89 million viewers across ESPN, ABC and TNT, up 49% from the first eight games of last year’s postseason, which aired on a Monday and Tuesday in August, and up slightly from the last traditional postseason in 2019,” Sports Media Watch noted.

The Phoenix Suns’ Game 1 win over the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers Sunday afternoon drew 6.04 million viewers on ABC — just shy of Phil Mickelson’s historic win at the PGA Championship.

NBA TV ratings increase for Wizards-Celtics play-in game

Jayson tatum Boston Celtics
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA is holding its annual play-in tournament consisting of eight teams vying for the final four spots in the playoffs. Tuesday’s Eastern Conference matchup between the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics might have also provided the Association with some hope.

According to Mark Medina of USA Today, the broadcast of said game drew 2.5 million viewers on TNT — the station’s most-watched game since opening night back in December. Boston ended up coming out on top in blowout fashion with Jayson Tatum dropping 50 points.

An NBA regular season that saw its rankings drop double digits from the 2019-20 campaign concluding with renewed interest can’t be seen as a bad thing. Whether ratings continue to increase during the playoffs remains to be seen.

Ratings during NBA Playoffs will be telling

NBA TV ratings
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the NBA regular season has concluded, we’re going to see each of North America’s largest media markets boast two teams in the playoff field. For the first time since 2013, the New York Knicks will be playing postseason basketball. They join the NBA title favorites in that of the Brooklyn Nets playing in the continent’s largest media market.

This could very well be telling given just how bad NBA TV ratings were for the 2020 playoffs in the Orlando Bubble. It will also be interesting to see how the Western Conference play-in game between LeBron James and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors does.

All of this could have an impact on the NBA’s next television contract. The Association is earning a combined $24 billion over its current nine-year pact. It is seeking $75 billion in its next deals. After TV ratings for last season’s playoffs were down 37% from 2018-19, the NBA is hoping for increased viewership.

Political activism continuing to impact NBA TV ratings with some signs of change

NBA shutdown
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A poll conducted by Yahoo News/YouGov back in March showed that 34.5% of respondents have watched less sports as leagues around the community continue with their social justice campaigns.

“Looking at the different political party affiliations, 19 percent of Democrats said they have watched less sports in light of social justice messaging, while 13.7 percent said they have watched more,” Newsweek noted. “In comparison, 53 percent of Republicans said they have watched less sports due to social justice messaging, and just 8.6 percent said they have watched more.”

To a lesser extent than last season, the 2020-21 NBA campaign has been politically-themed. The likes of LeBron James continue to make their opinions known. But as some of the rhetoric dies down following a 2020 calendar year defined by politics, we’re also seeing a downtick in divisiveness when it comes to the NBA.

“At the start of the 2020-2021 NBA season, Nielsen Media Research data showed that NBA viewership for nationally televised games on TNT, ABC and ESPN was up 34 percent compared to the same 27-game period from last season,” Newsweek noted.