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Celtics-Mavericks 2024 NBA Finals Ratings Preview: Will its Big Markets Result in Big Audiences?

It seemed the 2024 NBA postseason was signaling a transition. The biggest stars of basketball still remain as well-known entities but because their respective teams made early-round exits, they were not the dominant presence as they were in the many years prior.

The Los Angeles Lakers, with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, could only muster a single win in its first-round matchup with the defending champion Denver Nuggets. The Phoenix Suns had high aspirations upon its acquisition of two-time NBA champion Kevin Durant, but got swept by the upstart Minnesota Timberwolves. And, Durant’s former team Golden State Warriors could only reach the 9-10 play-in game despite the legendary (but aging) trio of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.

Filling the spotlight these playoffs were the league’s new hopefuls in the form of Anthony Edwards and the rest of the Minnesota Timberwolves, the West’s top-seeded Oklahoma City thunder with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (of the recent oft-played mobile carrier commercial, singing an old Christina Aguilera song) and, Jalen Brunson, the superstar point guard that helped resurrect the New York Knicks to relevant status.

But as the NBA was turning the proverbial page from its long established stars, the relatively new names did not result in raised viewership overall. New York is the number one TV market in the nation but the Knicks’ 7-game conference semifinal series with a young Indiana Pacers squad still averaged less than the Knicks’ second round matchup versus the Miami Heat last year. Dallas-Oklahoma City and Boston-Cleveland both fell below their respective year-ago playoff series windows as well.

Nonetheless, the sole ratings pulse seemed to come from the aforementioned Timberwolves where its second-round battle with Denver rose from Denver’s second-round series versus Phoenix in 2023. Perhaps a good number of NBA fans caught on to the hyperbolic comparison of Minnesota’s Edwards to all-time legend Michael Jordan. The T’Wolves went on to defeat the Nuggets in seven games, and thus, provided an ample ratings springboard for the Western Conference Final.

Whatever Minnesota spent from their tank to knock out the defending NBA champion in the previous round. It soon became clear they had little else left to compete with Dallas. The conference final ended after a mere five games and its viewership reflected the faded interest — 6.74 million, trailing the NBA conference finals of recent years.

The Eastern Conference Final was a four-game sweep in favor of the Boston Celtics. At an average of 6.31 million viewers throughout, its audience figures held up as well as it could be for a short series.

As a result, we have perennial title contender Boston Celtics and, for their first appearance since their 2011 championship season, the Dallas Mavericks. International superstar Luka Dončić will play in his first Finals.

Perhaps muting interest in these Finals, though, is Dallas‘ no. 2 star Kyrie Irving. He was celebrated in 2016 as part of the Cavaliers along with LeBron James to help the city of Cleveland win its first pro sports championship in 52 years. But his time with the Brooklyn Nets from 2019-23 was mired in infamy due to his actions (and inactions).

It is Irving’s superior play on the court during this regular season and postseason that have made headlines once again upon his return trip to the Finals — no comfort to the Nets fans who still consider him a pariah.

As indicated earlier in this article, the Celtics’ and Mavs’ past playoff games have not set the ratings on fire. Although both teams hail from the nation’s top 10 TV markets: No. 5 Dallas and No. 8 Boston, the same was said in 2022. On paper, Boston vs. the Bay Area’s Golden State was supposed to be a high-profile Finals. But it could not muster more than 13 million on average (it drew 12.4 million), when only three years prior a Canadian team (Toronto) bested Golden State in front of an average audience of 15.1 million.

Perhaps it may be a trend of TV altogether with linear viewership declining year-to-year thanks to cord-cutting and increased streaming (accelerated by the 2020 COVID pandemic, although the NFL is immune, of course).

Two teams from last year‘s Finals — Denver and Miami — do not have as big a national following like the Lakers, the Warriors or the Celtics. Yet, at 11.6 million, it represented only a 6 percent dip from Boston-Golden State; not the disappointment some (including myself) then expected it to be. In addition, Nielsen has far expanded its reach in out-of-home measurement, benefiting several sporting events of recent.

Boston-Dallas should increase from Denver-Miami and, because of more extensive Nielsen tabulations, from Golden State-Boston… but not by much: 12.8 million.

I inquired with professionals in the media industry to provide their ratings prognostications for the 2024 NBA Finals. Here is their analysis — you may also observe their guesses in numerical order:

Marc Berman, Editor-in-Chief of Programming Insider

12.6 million
Mirroring recent years, overall network viewership remains on the downside. But live sports is a rare exception, and there is every reason to predict the audience tally will get a slight bump from the last two years.

Andrew Marchand, sports media columnist for The Athletic

13.6 million.
Kyrie vs. the Celts is an intriguing storyline for a series I suspect will go 6 or 7 games.

Jason Romano, Director of Media and podcast host with Sports Spectrum; former ESPN producer

I’ll say 12.0 — a little up from last year particularly because of the star power of Boston and Luka/Kyrie. This number might be a little higher if the series goes 6 or 7.

Barry Horn, former sports media columnist at Dallas Morning News

10 million viewers

No NY. No LA. No Steph. No LeBron. No one outside the competing cities cares.

Drew Lerner, co-host of Sports Media Watch podcast

Viewership this year will be….fine. Celtics-Mavs is a fine match-up on paper, but won’t attract any eyeballs outside of those that usually tune into the Finals. The longer the series goes, the healthier the viewership will look — but the Celtics will take this in 5, and viewership will be down slightly from last year. 11.2 million.

Jimmy Traina, writer at Sports Illustrated and host of SI Media Podcast

11.9 million. The presence of the Celtics should give the Finals a bump over last season, but overall there isn’t a ton of juice for this year’s NBA Finals.

Evan Boyd, OptaSTATS researcher

The Celtics will likely be heavy favorites for the Finals, and while Luka Doncic is a player that everyone should watch, I do not see this matchup as one to bring back ratings to what it was a decade ago. I think 12.1 million will follow a series that I think will end in five games.

Ken Fang, Awful Announcing

With two top ten markets involved in the NBA Finals in Boston and Dallas, this will be a heavily watched series. The last time Boston was in the Finals was in 2022 against Golden State. That series averaged 12.4 million viewers. I expect this series to go 7 and that should bring eyeballs to ABC in droves. Expect this series to average 14.97 million viewers.

Scott Nolte, Northwest Iowa Y100.1 FM (KUYY) deejay-sports announcer

13.8 million
Two great teams with a good story line with Kyrie.  I think this will lead to decent numbers and the highest since 2019.

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

This isn’t anyone’s idea of a dream matchup but it’s interesting enough and the games should be competitive so I’ll go with a slight increase over last year. 12.2 million.

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

I don’t see much drop off from last year. Dallas and Boston aren’t as exciting as Denver was, but I think both will keep us interested. If it goes at least 5 games, I’ll say 11.2 million viewers. 

Maury Brown, Forbes

12.7 million

The Finals this year provide two differing interest angles that should be beneficial to viewership: the Celtics are a legacy brand that has national appeal while the Mavericks are entering the Finals with one of the greatest backcourts in NBA history in Doncic and Irving.

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

10.13 million viewers. Despite Boston and Dallas playing in the NBA Finals, ratings and viewership has been down from last season’s NBA playoffs. There are some good storylines with both teams, but I don’t think that helps the ratings top the 2023 Finals.

Terence Henderson, T Dog Media

Even though there’s a one-week delay in the NBA Finals, I don’t think it would have an overall impact on the ratings for the series. Plus, the Celtics are always a strong draw. I’m predicting 12.2 million.

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

Prediction: 12 million
The Celtics are a reliable draw, and Luka Doncic is captivating. But the matchup won’t be enough to eclipse the 2022 Celtics-Warriors series.

Daniel Kaplan, sports business reporter at The Athletic

Is there an NBA Finals? it seems they stopped playing ball!

Joking aside, the large gap between conference finals and the finals can’t help. That said, these are two big markets and an iconic franchise in Boston. I’d wager an average between 11 and 12 million, but it also depends on the series. A sweep and it could dip below 10 mil, a 7 game series could bring it up above 12 mil.

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

When the series has concluded, provided it’s not a sweep by either side, we’ll see an average audience of 13.5 million for this year’s Final, the best since 2019. We have two top-10 markets going at it and ample stars on both teams to make this a long, entertaining, and compelling series.

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

We’ll see just more than 10 million viewers as the names at the top of the marquee do generate interest from basketball fans, however I don’t expect many more viewers. We’ll get to 10.5 million when it’s over.

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

13.1 million
I think this series will have some length, which will help boost the number. I think it does bump up over last year no matter the number of games given the teams/markets.

William Mao, Octagon senior vice president

On the average of this year’s Finals, I’d say 12.2M (12.9M if it goes past 5 games).

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

12.1 million. Despite the long layoff I think fans will be locked into this intriguing matchup that has a chance to deliver a long and classic series.

Rich Greenfield, Media and Technology Analyst at LightShed Partners

12 million, the unexciting conference finals did not help build drama and storylines heading into the NBA Finals.

Jake Kline, attorney/sports media observer

Broadcasters care most about series length—a 7-game series with ho-hum viewership numbers is better than a 4- or 5-game series that posts robust numbers. Of course, in an ideal world, they would like to have both. I think a 6-game series here is likely.
Despite being the underdogs, the Mavericks have more recognizable starpower than their opponents. Dončić is looking to become the first player to win the scoring title and the NBA Finals in the same season since Shaq in ’99-’00. Irving—who has kept the drama to a minimum this year—nevertheless has a laundry list of off-the-court controversies whose length rivals that of a CVS receipt. Polarizing figures draw eyeballs.

The Celtics’ main storyline once again is if they can win the big one. Whether this question will grab the attention of the casual sports fan is unclear, particularly considering this has been the narrative surrounding the franchise for a decade and a half now. The Celtics have undoubtedly been dominant all season-long, but they lack that certain pizzazz which attracts new viewers.
There is very little to glean from recent years. In the 2023 matchup, the Nuggets and Heat came from smaller TV markets. Many will look to the 2022 Finals, also featuring the Celtics, as a comp. However, asterisks apply. Warriors fatigue had undoubtedly crept in at that point and Tatum wasn’t as widely recognized in the greater sports world. 2020 and 2021 had shifted dates, so they’re not useful datapoints in this exercise. Then of course there’s the OOH discrepancy the further back we go along with changing habits regarding traditional TV watching.
Perhaps most importantly, these 2024 playoffs were averaging higher viewership than the 2022 postseason until the short-lived, one-sided conference final series weighed down the numbers. Considering this NBA postseason lacked a lot of its blue-blood, large market teams, an increase from two years ago in the early rounds is a significant accomplishment.
There are other factors to keep in mind. Kyrie’s spurning of the Celtics a few years ago could jolt the New England audience into hate-watching. ABC is also airing the Stanley Cup Final—most assuredly they will engage in some cross-promotion. 2024 is a presidential election year—domestic or world events could draw people’s attention away from sports. There’s also the long layoff: the Celtics get 9 days off while the Mavs get 6. There’s a lack of momentum heading into the Game 1 tipoff.
With all this in mind, my prediction for the total viewership on ABC and streaming is 13.6M. Admittedly a bit bullish here. ABC can hopefully christen their new lead commentating team of Breen, Burke, and Redick with a multiyear high. TBD if JJ will take the Lakers HC job once the confetti hits the floor.

Frank Isola, ESPN/SiriusXM NBA Radio host/Nets studio analyst for YES Network

13.5 million

Jon Lewis, Sports Media Watch

It should not take much for the NBA to score its most-watched Finals in five years, but the real question is whether the numbers will move past the 11-12 million range. I’m not so sure. This is a star-studded, big-market series, but I don’t know that any of the stars are the kind of above-the-fold names that have moved the needle in the past. I’ll go with 12.9 million for a six-game series.

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

Luka and Kyrie vs the Celtics. Modest increase from last year to 12.2 m average viewers. Maybe slightly higher if it goes 7 games.

Pat Boyle, WFAN & CBS Sports Radio producer/host and sports play-by-play announcer for Rutgers, Villanova and LIU

17.4 Million – 2 big markets with passionate fanbases and plenty of star power. NBA gets its best Finals viewing since 2018

David Barron, former Houston Chronicle sports media columnist

I’ll guess 12.2 million. Good matchup should signal a longer series and a bump from last year, but no Left Coast representation may signal a slight drop from two years ago.

Lori Rubinson, WFAN sports radio talk show host

I’ll go with 11.65 million. Viewership has been down 12% in the playoffs this year. But I think having Celtics brand name vs. star power of Luka and Kyrie should keep ratings at the level of 2023. Don’t think it will match 2022 when you had Steph Curry.

Bill Shea, former senior writer at The Athletic

12.5 million average, may add a million or so more if it’s a tight series that goes seven games and ends on a thriller; I like Boston as a bit of a national draw but what storylines and superstars are we talking about here — the needle-movers for the casual fans? And really, while the NBA remains a TV behemoth within its context, how much talking are we doing about the league beyond its new broadcast rights deals? The recent primary basketball media narrative has been the WNBA. All that said, in this wild streaming age, it’s harder to predict what the public will do so I’d not be shocked to see a higher or lower TV average — definitely shorter if it’s a sweep and blowouts.

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

12.1 million – A legacy franchise in the Celtics and two top-ten DMAs between Boston and Dallas- Ft. Worth are enough to keep the viewership above last June. It’s also a series capable of going at least six games since the Celtics won’t just be able to steamroll a fully healthy Mavs team.

Ryan Glasspiegel, New York Post sports/entertainment reporter

12.55 million viewers

Timothy Burke, President at Burke Communications

11.1 million viewers

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

Name Viewers
(in millions)
Pat Boyle 17.4
Ken Fang 14.97
Scott Nolte 13.8
Andrew Marchand 13.6
Jake Kline 13.6
Lou D’Ermilio 13.5
Frank Isola 13.5
Richard Deitsch 13.1
Jon Lewis 12.9
Douglas Pucci 12.8
Maury Brown 12.7
Marc Berman 12.6
Ryan Glasspiegel 12.55
Bill Shea 12.5 (13.5, if 7 gms)
Jay Posner 12.2
William Mao 12.2 (12.9, if 6-7 gms)
Terence Henderson 12.2
Bob Thompson 12.2
David Barron 12.2
Evan Boyd 12.1
Michael Fliegelman 12.1
Jason Clinkscales 12.1
Jason Romano 12.0
Jeff Agrest 12.0
Rich Greenfield 12.0
Jimmy Traina 11.9
Lori Rubinson 11.65
Daniel Kaplan 11.5
Drew Lerner 11.2
Jason Jacobs 11.2
Timothy Burke 11.1
Dan Serafin 10.5
Steve Kaplowitz 10.13
Barry Horn 10.0