ABC should hope that interest in the Warriors hasn’t gone stale after a fifth-consecutive Finals trip
The NBA Finals will cross international borders when it tips off Thursday, with the Toronto Raptors becoming the first team outside the United States to play for the NBA title. But while they may be celebrating up in the North, the lack of a second U.S. home market will likely put a dent in the TV ratings for ABC.
Outside of the Super Bowl, TV ratings in sports championships come down to two key ingredients: The size of the two teams’ home markets and the competitiveness of the series. In that first one, ABC is already working at a disadvantage.
The Raptors, outside of the camera-shy Kawhi Leonard, don’t have many household names the average fan would know either. In fact, the Raptors’ biggest star just might be Drake, who is something of a team ambassador, and frequently makes headlines with his antics from his courtside seats. On the other side, the Golden State Warriors are making their fifth straight NBA Finals appearance and looking to win their third title in a row, and fourth over the last five years.
“I want whichever team is going to give Golden State the most trouble,” Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and scheduling, said earlier this week on TV By the Numbers founder Robert Seidman’s podcast, “The World’s Fastest-Growing Sports Media Podcast.” ESPN handles the Finals’ broadcasts for ABC.
“Nothing trumps more games,” Magnus continued. “I think the Toronto thing is over-blown. When it gets down to the Finals, really what we’re hoping for is whoever will make it a six or seven-game series.”
But recent years have shown, at least in other pro leagues, that Canadian-based teams in the title round have typically not been good for U.S. ratings, no matter how long the series goes. NBC has had some of its worst Stanley Cup Finals results when a Canadian team is competing for the trophy, most recently in 2011.
That series, despite the Boston Bruins needing seven games to knock out the Vancouver Canucks, was the second-least viewed this decade — only 2016’s Finals drew fewer people. NBC’s two lowest-viewed Finals came in 2006 and 2007, both of which featured teams from Canada; those two came directly after a 2005 lockout canceled an entire season, so some fans may still have been angry.
In baseball, the Toronto Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series in 1992 and 1993. While both of those series garnered numbers that Fox would kill for these days (30 million in 1992 and 24.7 million in 1993), the Blue Jays’ second appearance was the third-least viewed of the 1990s, only better than a pair of New York Yankee-led sweeps in 1998 and 1999.
ABC has been on a strong run courtesy of mega-star LeBron James making eight consecutive trips, including the last four that pitted him and the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Warriors.
The first three matchups rank as the three highest-rated and most-watched NBA Finals of this decade, with two of them — in 2016 and 2017 — surpassing 20 million viewers, which hadn’t happened since Michael Jordan’s heyday. But after four years, that rivalry had run out of steam – mostly because the Warriors made it one-sided.
The Warriors polished off their second straight title in 2018 with an easy four-game sweep, and viewership dipped accordingly to 17.7 million.
In Canada, the NBA Finals are split between Bell Media’s TSN and Sportsnet, the latter of which is owned by Canadian telecom giant Rogers Communications. The Raptors’ Eastern Conference-clinching victory last Saturday drew 3.1 million viewers to Sportsnet, the largest Canadian TV audience for an NBA game in history.
And those numbers will probably only get bigger when The Finals tip off. But it will come at the cost of ABC’s viewership. During a media conference call on Tuesday to preview the NBA Finals, TV analysts Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy both dodged questions regarding ratings, though Van Gundy allowed that Toronto would be an easy scapegoat.
“One thing that you learn in the NBA, you always have to have someone ready to blame because that’s how the NBA works,” Van Gundy said. “Whoever you’re blaming, just have your list ready.”