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Looking Ahead to ABC’s Dream NBA Finals

Programming Insider ran a ratings outlook piece prior to the recently concluded NBA Finals. The consensus was that the ratings would be down this year, mostly because of two reasons. Firstly, the Raptors are based in Canada, and that eliminated a second major home market. There is precedent for this, as CBS saw ratings for its MLB World Series coverage dip in 1992 and 1993 when the Toronto Blue Jays won it twice in a row. Secondly, analysts thought the Raptors lacked star power, which was mainly referring to the absence of LeBron James from the Finals, not necessarily the Raptors actual roster.

A Big Drop Off

Compared to previous finals the viewership did drop significantly. On average, 13.35 million tuned in to games 1–4 of this series (for a 7.8 rating), as opposed to the 17.56 million (10) who watched the same games in last year’s Finals. Viewership even dipped below the 13 million (7.6) mark for game 4 — the first time that has happened since 2007.

A Bright Future?

The NBA Finals has been ABC’s cash cow since 2003, and the network has benefited greatly from four consecutive Warriors-Cavs showdowns from 2015 to 2018. This year’s Raptors-Warriors series, though, was a downer, even though ratings spiked to 10.6 and 10.7 in games 5 and 6, respectively. However, ABC might be looking at a big bounce back in next year’s Finals.

Interest in the league is high right now due to a couple of reasons. Firstly, there is great uncertainty all around the NBA. The once mighty Warriors are not so mighty anymore minus injured stars Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, while big names such as Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard might potentially move elsewhere. Secondly, LeBron James and his Los Angeles Lakers are looking like a Finals contender. And if the stars align for ABC, next year’s season capper might feature either two big U.S. markets (Philadelphia, if they can keep their team intact, can make the Finals opposite the Lakers) or a matchup between the league’s marquee superstars (prime Leonard vs. prime LeBron is appointment viewing).

The Big “What If?”

While ABC top brass are likely plotting for next season, it should be noted that the Raptors-Warriors Finals could have been a ratings bonanza. The stage was set perfectly for an explosive, compelling series.

The Raptors and Warriors were the league’s premier teams, and they are led by transcendent superstars — Leonard for Toronto, Durant for Golden State. The Raptors were expected to test the Warriors’ championship mettle, only for the Dubs to prevail. In fact, even bwin Basketball installed the Warriors as the clear favorites, noting that KD missing game 1 would make the series opener more interesting. The assumption was that Golden State’s leading scorer would be back before the end of the Finals, to help lead the Warriors to victory.

But that did not happen.

USA Today explains that everything went wrong for the Warriors during the series, with the worst being Durant’s absence. He missed the entire series, except for a 12-minute stretch in game 5 that ended with KD rupturing his right Achilles. Just like that, what would have been an interesting series lost much of its luster, to the disappointment of ABC and the NBA.

The next NBA season has ostensibly began, with the Lakers trading superstar Anthony Davis. Then Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Harrison Barnes, and Khris Middleton all declined their player options to become free agents. If these moves are any indication, fans will be in for a treat next year, which hopefully will conclude with a ratings pulling, Finals.