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2023 NBA Finals Ratings Preview: Will Denver Nuggets-Miami Heat Continue the Momentum of a Highly-Viewed Postseason on ABC?

May 21st, a Sunday night. The Miami Heat blew out the Boston Celtics 128-102 and took a commanding 3-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals.

This result came 24 hours following another team who also went up 3-games-to-none in their conference final: the Denver Nuggets, over the LeBron James-led Los Angeles Lakers.

So, it seemed a Denver-Miami NBA Finals was a “fait accompli.” No NBA team had ever came back to win a playoff series after being down 0-3. The Nuggets completed its sweep of the Lakers on May 22nd and had officially clinched their first Finals berth in franchise history. But the Celtics, attempting to channel their Boston spirit a la the 2004 Red Sox, wound up pushing the Heat to the limit for the rest of that week including their stunning buzzer-beater Game 6 win in Miami.

Yet, in front of a record TNT audience for an Eastern Conference Final game telecast, the Miami Heat ultimately prevailed in Game 7 on May 29th and thus, the Nuggets-Heat Final finally became official. It’ll mark the conclusion of a significant postseason that provided key milestones for its TV partners. The thirty-one contests on ESPN platforms (including ABC) averaged 5.58 million viewers, an 11-year high for coverage. TNT’s 4.7 million average reached a 5-year best. (As always, it’s important to note Nielsen has factored out-of-home viewing — a vital tabulation for live events — only since September 2020.)

Nonetheless, one of the main contributors for those multi-year highs will be absent for the upcoming Finals. All the marquee teams and top markets initially part of the playoffs — L.A. Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, L.A. Clippers, Philadelphia 76ers — failed to reach these Finals. Even the superstar-led lesser-market teams — Giannis-led Milwaukee Bucks, Kevin Durant-led Phoenix Suns — also bowed out.

The West’s No. 1-seeded Denver Nuggets, despite perennial MVP contender Nikola Jokic and the formidable Jamal Murray, do not yet feature any household names. Even its own household (so to speak) — the state of Colorado — have been denied watching Nuggets regular-season games on their regional sports network Altitude on Comcast, the state’s most widely-distributed cable company, since 2019 due to a long-running dispute.

Denver’s four-game sweep of the Lakers was the most-watched conference final (at a 7.9 million viewer average) on any network in five years, but the involvement of the star-studded L.A. Lakers had a lot to do with that achievement. The Nuggets were also the same team whose first-round series’ clinching victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves was relegated to NBA TV, the league-owned network that’s almost always the outlet for the least in-demand games on a night’s stacked slate of postseason action.

The Miami Heat’s road to the Finals began very rocky. It lost to the Atlanta Hawks and the No. 7 seed in the first play-in game. Miami was losing 90-87 to the Chicago Bulls in the second play-in game for the 8 seed until they went on a 15-1 run to close it out.

The Heat went on to knock off the 1-seed Milwaukee Bucks, 5-seed New York Knicks and 2-seed Boston Celtics — all of whom were odds-on favorites in their respective series — to become the first conference 8th seed in 24 years to reach the Finals.

Miami’s franchise first gained national notice upon Pat Riley’s arrival in the late 90’s and rose to top billing once LeBron James announced he’d take his talents to South Beach in 2010. But James last wore a Heat uniform in 2014. In addition, James’ friend and Heat legend Dwyane Wade retired in 2019. While a casual fan might know of Miami’s Jimmy Butler who had delivered some memorable performances earlier in the playoffs, that same fan might be hard pressed to name or identify the rest of Miami’s current active roster.

For ABC and the NBA, it certainly hopes a Denver-Miami series goes at least six games to garner some extra causal interest. However, if last year’s Finals were any indication, a series lasting six games is no definitive assurance for great ratings. Two well-known franchises — the Golden State Warriors and the Boston Celtics — battled it out, yet only mustered 12.4 million viewers, the lowest Golden State-involved Finals on record, and the least-watched June-slated Finals since 2003.

My take: While Miami has stymied the East’s best teams in these playoffs, it’s likely to have their hands full against a vastly superior Nuggets offense in this championship series. The avid sports fan will delight in finally seeing Denver’s Jokic and Murray displayed on the NBA’s biggest stage, but that’s likely to be the limit of such audiences. The extraordinary viewer bumps that the Heat-Celtics games 6 and 7 generated probably won’t give that much momentum to the 2023 NBA Finals. Of the nine Miami Heat playoff games prior to Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, seven of them had declined in viewership from the equivalent window in 2022, as noted by Sports Media Watch. Denver Nuggets vs. Miami Heat might be a highly competitive contest (and I hope it is), but it will be the ratings anticlimax of a memorable postseason: I’m predicting a 10.6 million viewer average.

I inquired with professionals in the media industry to provide their ratings prognostications for the 2023 NBA Finals. Here is their analysis — you may also observe their guesses in numerical order:

Marc Berman, Editor-in-Chief of Programming Insider

12.7 million. Even in today’s cluttered multi-platform environment, sports is still a major standout and I am predicting a slight uptick from one year earlier.

Rich Greenfield, Media and Technology Analyst at LightShed Partners

11 million viewers.
Some great storylines and players, but smaller market teams will likely pressure casual fan viewership year-over-year. 

Steve Kaplowitz, afternoon sports talk radio host at 600 ESPN El Paso (Texas)

11.5 million viewers. Miami is a massive underdog in this NBA Finals matchup with Denver, but it will fall short of last year’s viewership.

Dave Bauder, Associated Press

10.2 million. I don’t think there will be much interest outside of the home cities of the combatants, Denver and Miami.

Michael McCarthy, Senior Writer at Front Office Sports

The NBA Playoffs have been on a big roll ratings-wise. But even after two MVP’s, the Joker and Nuggets are relative unknowns to a lot of casual sports viewers. The NBA’s a star-driven league — and lack of stars will hurt Finals ratings. I will say 10.7 million average.

Jon Zaghloul, TV & radio host of “Sports Talk Chicago”

A highly-anticipated Lakers vs. Celtics rematch would have produced better ratings, but, nevertheless, this year’s NBA Finals receive a slight bump from 2022, and a measurable upward trend from 2020. My guess is 13.5 million.

Jason Jacobs, Northwest Iowa Campus Radio 103.9 (KUOO) sports announcer

12.1 million viewers. I think it stays close to current levels unless we get a sweep. Also not sure Denver will be that big of a national draw.

Bill Shea, senior writer at The Athletic

Four games — 11.5 million
Seven games — 13 million
Five or six games — 12 million

It’s such a chaotic wild west across the television industry, with surprises both positive and negative in live sports, that it’s hard go be wedded to any particular number. I won’t be surprised at all if I’m too high or too low. A lot also depends on how the NBA and Disney opt to market the Finals, its storylines, and stars like Jokić and Butler. Ultimately, the finals will out-draw everything else on its game nights and that’s what matters in the end.

Phillip Swann, TV Answer Man

11.5 million. Tough sell for the NBA without the Lake Show.

Andrew Marchand, New York Post sports media columnist and co-host of the Marchand & Ourand Sports Media Podcast

10.7 million. I think the number will be solid, even with a matchup that is not as flashy as possible.

Lou D’Ermilio, LOUD Communications, former Senior Vice President of Fox Sports media relations

Assuming six games between Miami and Denver, this year’s NBA Finals will draw an average audience of 11.1 million viewers due to two factors: the competing teams are newcomers to the dance with a smaller combined market size versus last year’s finalists.

Evan Boyd, OptaSTATS researcher

This has been a great playoffs so far. So I expect viewership to rise more. A new, exciting team like Denver might draw interest. I’ll say 13.5 million

Michael Fliegelman, WFAN (New York) sports radio producer/host

12.8 million. The ratings boost we’ve seen this postseason continues. People tune in and finally appreciate how impressive (and fun) Jokic and the Nuggets are.

Maury Brown, Forbes

Yes, it’s Joker and the Nuggets are in the Finals for the first time. Yes, the Heat have Jimmy Butler. But the brands aren’t going to resonate with the masses. I’ll say 11.6 million.

Jay Posner, former sports editor of San Diego Union-Tribune

I’ll go with 8.4 million average. Hard to see this matchup exciting the casual fan at the beginning or being close enough to bring them in at the end.

Jason Clinkscales, NYC-based media analyst/editor/writer, regular contributor for Awful Announcing and Decider, former media research analyst

13.5 million, including out of home.

I think these Finals will build off the strong momentum of the previous rounds as well as the relative lack of zeitgeist-holding scripted fare at the moment.

Skip (Arthur) Perham, Sports Management Program Director and Marketing Instructor at Suffolk University Sawyer Business School

I am going to predict a smidge below last year given that Denver is a smaller market and Miami is an 8 seed. 11.5 million is my prediction.

Dan Serafin, News 12 The Bronx/Brooklyn news & sports anchor

The match-up isn’t one that NBA executives are excited about but I think basketball fans are intrigued by the players that will be on the floor. I’m thinking we’ll a rating right around 5 and viewership just get to 10 million.

Ken Fang, Awful Announcing

While the NBA and ESPN did not get its glamor matchup of the Celtics and Lakers, Miami and Denver will do well. It’s not going to reach the 12.4 million average of last year with the Celtics and Golden State Warriors, but thanks to the seven game series in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Finals will attract some casual viewers. The 2023 NBA Finals will average 11.6 million viewers this year. Disney will take that to the bank.

Ryan Glasspiegel, New York Post sports/entertainment reporter

9.8 million. I think it will be second-lowest on record, after the 2020 NBA Bubble finals, which is unfortunate because they are two teams that are great fun to watch in the way they approach basketball.

Dan Cohen, Senior Vice President of Octagon Sports and Entertainment Network

These Finals are a terrific opportunity for the NBA to showcase two of their stars that don’t get enough national attention (Nikola Jokic and Jimmy Butler). I think this will serve the NBA well to showcase these players, but at the same time, national casual tune in may wane from last year considering the smaller markets competing and the absence of a global star like Steph Curry.  That said, it will be a win for the League regardless and 10.5 million people on average will tune in.

Jeff Agrest, Chicago Sun-Times deputy sports editor and media columnist

NBA Finals viewership prediction: 10.2 million.
Interest will drop from last year’s Finals because of the teams, but Jokic, Butler and a competitive series help it break 10 million.

Richard Deitsch, sports media columnist at The Athletic and host of the Sports Media podcast

10.8 million viewers. I think the conventional wisdom is this series will tank viewership-wise but I’ll play the other side. The NBA has had a great viewership postseason and there may be some unexpected momentum to get the final number above 10 million. Length, as always, is the big X-factor here.

Bob Thompson, Thompson Sports Group LLC, retired President of Fox Sports Networks and BTN co-founder

I’ll go 11.1 million including out of home.

Terence Henderson, T Dog Media

Media buyers, ABC, and advertisers were hoping for another Lakers-Celtics Finals matchup, but instead get Nuggets-Heat. Given the lower profile of each team, I’ll predict 11.7 million viewers and Denver in five.

Jon Lewis, Sports Media Watch

I think it will be a short series, so that influences my opinion a bit. Originally I thought somewhere in the 9 million range, but the strong finish for Heat-Celtics makes — and the fact that both Miami and Denver played in front of big conference final audiences (even if most viewers were tuning in for Boston and LA) — makes me think it will fare a bit better than that. So I’ll say an average of 10.5 million over five games.

Jake Kline, attorney/sports media observer, JohnWallStreet contributor

Admittedly, this is difficult.  Recent history isn’t very informative – two of the past three Finals have had significantly altered schedules, Nielsen’s 2021 numbers aren’t reliable, and OOH (out-of-home) was only recently included in the tally.  NBA’s ratings darlings Lakers and Warriors are both out.  The Nuggets are a Finals newcomer.  Despite their dominance on the court and 2x MVP Jokić’s brilliance, they have not garnered as much national media attention as other top teams due to their geographic location.

‘Heat Culture’ is gaining steam but like their star Jimmy Butler, it can only do so much on its own. The 8-seed storyline, while intriguing, hasn’t exactly resonated with the casual sports fan. Additionally, it’s hard to quantify what effect the earlier tipoff times will have, if any. Many are also predicting a lopsided result. Considering all of this, I’m going with an average between 10-11 million, say 10.8 million. 

Two important things to remember: (1) networks care more about series length than average rating – they want to maximize their possible ad inventory and (2) the ratings for the Finals (and the rest of this postseason) will have little to no bearing on the price point for the next round of broadcast rights negotiations – it’s already baked in.

To recap, here are the predictions in sorted order (you may click on their name for their respective analyses)

Name Viewers
(in millions)
Jay Posner 8.4
Ryan Glasspiegel 9.8
Dan Serafin 10.0
Dave Bauder 10.2
Jeff Agrest 10.2
Dan Cohen 10.5
Jon Lewis 10.5
Douglas Pucci 10.6
Michael McCarthy 10.7
Andrew Marchand 10.7
Richard Deitsch 10.8
Jake Kline 10.8
Rich Greenfield 11.0
Lou D’Ermilio 11.1
Bob Thompson 11.1
Steve Kaplowitz 11.5
Phillip Swann 11.5
Skip (Arthur) Perham 11.5
Bill Shea 11.5-13.0
Maury Brown 11.6
Ken Fang 11.6
Terence Henderson 11.7
Jason Jacobs 12.1
Marc Berman 12.7
Michael Fliegelman 12.8
Jon Zaghloul 13.5
Evan Boyd 13.5
Jason Clinkscales 13.5