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NBA Finals Viewership Soars 32% From Last Year, but Still Way Down From 2019

Small-market teams and no LeBron proved to be a challenge — but the series was good

The 2021 NBA Finals was a historical series for the residents of Milwaukee, in which the Bucks won their first championship in 50 years. Unfortunately for the NBA and host network ABC, the series was not much one for the history books in terms of Nielsen numbers, though this one rose from last year’s.

We’ll get to all of the asterisks in a moment.

The six-game series, which saw the Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns win Games 1 and 2 at home before ultimately losing the next four in both Wisconsin and Arizona, averaged 9.9 million total viewers per game, according to Nielsen’s Live + Same Day ratings. That was up 32% from the 2020 NBA Finals, which averaged just 7.5 million viewers per game.

Of course, last year’s NBA Finals were delayed to late September/early October due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The timing was not ideal, nor was the bubble setting. There were no fans in attendance for the 2020 Miami Heat vs. Los Angeles Lakers series, won in six games by L.A.

The 2019 Finals, the most recent *normal* one, averaged 15.1 million total viewers per game. From that one — when Toronto Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors in six games — to this one, the decline is 34%.

In other words, the data folks at ABC and the NBA should really only hoist any celebration banner about halfway today.

The 2021 NBA Finals were the first in 10 years without either Steph Curry or LeBron James. No disrespect to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Chris Paul, but these are different levels of stardom we’re talking about. But don’t take our word for it: the Bucks were the sixth most-watched NBA team this season; the Suns were 16th.

Throughout the entire 2021 postseason, TV-usage levels (called PUT levels, or People Using Televisions) were down 14% vs. 2020 and -23% vs. 2019. And airing this year’s Game 5 on a Saturday — the first time an NBA Finals game was played on a Saturday in 40 years — certainly didn’t help in series averages.

Due to the coronavirus’ impact on the 2019-20 NBA season, the start to the 2021 NBA Postseason was pushed back a bit, just like the regular season. And in general, the adjusted July footprint for these delayed NBA Finals delivers 5% fewer organic TV viewers than does the championship series’ normal two-week window in June.