The Bubble Finals of 2020 were beaten by the World Series for the first time in four years
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Every once in a while, we’re treated to an out-of-nowhere, oddball title match-up. The 2021 NBA Finals, which pit the Phoenix Suns against the Milwaukee Bucks, is the one of the strangest and most unexpected in recent sports memory.
And despite the relatively smaller markets — Milwaukee is the 37th ranked Nielsen designated market area, the smallest TV market to be in the NBA Finals since Oklahoma City in 2012, while Phoenix ranks as a more respectable 11th — this year’s NBA Finals should still be able to top last year’s in viewership, no matter how far it goes.
Last year’s NBA Finals shed half of its audience despite featuring LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. The six-game showdown against the Miami Heat drew 7.4 million viewers, and was the first time since 2016 the Finals were out-viewed by the World Series (which was still a record-low for Major League Baseball). There were numerous caveats to that number, of course, the biggest being that the NBA Finals took place in October in a fan-less bubble environment.
Those caveats are why this year’s matchup, which is still taking place a month later than normal, should provide a bounce back in viewership.
Plus, there’s something to be said about the weirdness of this year’s competition. The Suns made the playoffs for the first time since 2010 and secured their first appearance in the Finals since Charles Barkley fell to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the early ’90s. The Bucks, meanwhile, have been knocking on the door the past few years and finally broke through this year for that franchise’s first Finals appearance since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still known as Lew Alcindor.
The Suns have never won a title while the Bucks won their only championship in 1971.
In terms of star power, the Suns have rising star Devin Booker as well as future Hall-of-Famer and State Farm commercials star Chris Paul, who is in his first Finals. The Bucks are led by two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, though his health for the series is a huge question mark.
The NBA has rebounded this postseason from last year’s COVID-delayed bubble, which pushed the playoffs and Finals into the fall. ESPN/ABC’s playoff coverage was up 34% with just a hair under 4 million viewers.
That comes despite a rash of injuries to top stars including (deep breath) LeBron James, Anthony Davis, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Jamal Murray, Kawhi Leonard, Trae Young and the aforementioned Antetokounmpo. Even the Suns’ Paul missed the first two games of the Western Conference Finals due to COVID-19 protocols.
The 2021 NBA Finals begin Tuesday night at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT on ABC.
TV reporter • firstname.lastname@example.org • Twitter: @tim_bays