The NBA Finals tip off Thursday on ABC with yet another matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, but don’t expect audiences to get tired of LeBron James battling Steph Curry just yet.
This is the first time in any of the major professional sports that the same two teams will square off in the championship for a fourth consecutive year. And despite the criticism over the NBA’s lack of parity, that hasn’t made viewers tune away just yet.
“LeBron James being in the Finals is never bad for business,” said ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who will call the series with Mark Jackson and Mike Breen, on a conference call with reporters held Tuesday. “The Warriors are such a team of superior talent that Durant, Curry, Thompson, you know, they are going to always be a big draw.”
A look through the Nielsen history books makes the case the lack of parity hasn’t hurt the NBA. In fact, it may have even helped.
ABC has had the fortune of a LeBron James-led team making the Finals every year this decade, especially the last three that have included the Warriors. And the first three matchups between the Warriors and Cavaliers rank as the three highest-rated and most-watched NBA Finals of the decade, according to Nielsen. The last two each surpassed 20 million viewers, which hadn’t happened since since Michael Jordan’s heyday.
The 1990s were dominated by Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, who won six NBA championships between 1991-98. NBC sure didn’t mind the lack of parity then, as each of the Bulls’ six NBA Finals surpassed an average of 20 million viewers and never went below a 14 rating. The 1998 series, itself a rematch of the 1997 NBA Finals between the Bulls and Utah Jazz, has still not been matched. The six-game series, at the time thought to be Jordan’s curtain call, averaged a gaudy 18.7 rating and 29 million viewers. The final game alone drew 35.9 million and a 22.3 rating.
During the 1980s, an era that many NBA historians consider to be the league’s best, every single NBA Finals featured either the Lakers or Celtics. Both teams faced off against each other three times during a four-year span from 1984-87, with the final one standing as the highest-rated and most watched series for then-TV rights holder CBS, with a 15.9 rating and an average of 24.1 million viewers.
The Warriors are considered heavy favorites to win their third championship in four years. The only thing that could hurt the ratings for this year’s NBA Finals would be a short, one-sided series.
“If James and the Cavaliers win Game 1, you know, the interest is going to skyrocket because they are going to have done what they — very few except for them maybe think they can do, which is win at Golden State,” added Van Gundy.
We’ll find out Thursday night.