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The NBA Finals in the Autumn: How Many Viewers Will It Draw?

Several media professionals provide their opinions on the sport's championship series taking place when the NFL regular season and MLB postseason usually reign.

2020 has been a surreal year for many of us in all parts of our lives, including the sports world which all came to a halt due to the pandemic in mid-March. Even before the coronavirus, it already had been a season of turmoil and heartbreak for the National Basketball Association (NBA). The league had lost business with China last fall over pro-democracy sentiments. As the calendar turned to 2020, the passings of former longtime commissioner David Stern passed away, and just weeks later, Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna. And on March 11, shortly after Jazz player Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID, the sudden cancellation of the NBA regular season, with the oft-featured moment of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban from his arena floor seat reacting with shock upon learning of the cancellation news from his smartphone.

Even at one point during the sports’ lockdown in the spring, current NBA commissioner Adam Silver expressed additional uncertainty as to how the league would ever return.

But in the summer, the NBA did return. All participating players, personnel and media would reside inside a makeshift “bubble” at Disney World’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla.

Social injustice has also been in the forefront amidst the pandemic, with the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the shooting of the now-paralyzed Jacob Blake — all by police officers. The season, which prominently displays the “Black Lives Matter” statement at each game, nearly ended again following the shooting of Blake in late August with teams (e.g. Bucks, Lakers, Clippers) boycotting play in protest. It was by the urging of former POTUS Barack Obama that brought the NBA back in action.

The resuming of the NBA season followed by its postseason has been a rousing success, providing a model template of a safe environment for sports leagues and film/TV productions.

The Los Angeles Lakers, the team at the center of the NBA’s aforementioned issues and moments (China, Kobe), were already championship favorites entering the 2019-20 season with the acquisition of power forward-center Anthony Davis last summer. The Western Conference representative in the Finals will face LeBron James’ former team from 2010-14, the Miami Heat.

The Heat, with a roster of up-and-coming stars alongside veterans Jimmy Butler and Andre Iguodala, ranked as the No. 5 seed in the East. They swept the Indiana Pacers in the first round, dominated the East’s top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in the conference semis and outlasted the formidable Boston Celtics in the conference final in six games.

An average of 15.1 million viewers tuned in to Canada’s first-ever NBA championship via Toronto Raptors’ six-game series victory over the Golden State Warriors in June 2019 (also, the first Finals not to feature LeBron James since 2010). The all-time Finals low was in June 2007 when the San Antonio Spurs swept the Cleveland Cavaliers; only 9.3 million had watched. That was LeBron James’ first career Finals appearance. Interest in the Finals has grown considerably larger in his subsequent appearances (since 2010) with average audiences ranging from 15.5 million to 20.4 million viewers, which are some of the best viewership figures since the Michael Jordan era of the late 1990.

If Lakers-Heat had taken place in the Finals’ regular month of June, I’d have predicted 17 million. However, the unique circumstances have positioned the NBA Finals at a hectic period in the sports calendar. The MLB postseason opened while the NFL continues to be a ratings monster. Each time the NBA playoffs had been up against the NFL in prime time within the past three weeks, the NBA has experienced significant dips — something to keep in mind with NBA Finals Games 3 and 6 scheduled opposite NBC’s “Sunday Night Football”. Therefore, I’m going with 14.1 million across five games (Lakers victorious) — still, an excellent figure in today’s fragmented TV world.

I inquired with professionals in the media industry to provide their ratings prognostications for the upcoming NBA Finals. Here are their takes:

Jon Lewis, Sports Media Watch

NBA ratings were trending down even before the season was halted in March, and the declines have been steeper since the league’s return from a four-month hiatus in July. Between the strange time of year, unusually early start times, and unusually strong competition (NFL, CFB), there have been any number of obstacles for the NBA this postseason. That will not change for the NBA Finals, which should be the lowest rated and least-watched since at least 2007. Just the two NFL head-to-heads alone will be difficult to overcome. I say a 6.2 avg. rating and 10.7 million viewers.

Michael McCarthy, senior writer at Front Office Sports

NBA ratings never recovered from coronavirus shutdown.

14.9 million viewers. 8.7 rating.

Neil Best, Newsday sports columnist

13.2 million
The NBA has done a great job with its bubble and its fan-free TV presentation, but it’s autumn, and it’s an election year, meaning too much else going on in the world to generate big viewership numbers.

Maury Brown, Forbes

9.2 [rating]/17 million

The return of the Lakers Showtime along with LeBron’s 10th Finals will have ratings up compared to last year, but not as high as it could due to competition from the MLB postseason.

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

Due to changes and uncertainties caused by the pandemic this prediction is no layup, but I’m expecting a competitive six-game series that will average a 9.8 with 17.0 million viewers, an uptick from last year, but below the average of the last 10 years (10.4/17.9mm). Having only one US market competing last year had a detrimental impact, leading to the lowest-rated, least-viewed NBA Finals in a decade. This season, with two competing US markets (one being the second-largest) and Lebron back, audience levels should rebound somewhat.

Patrick Crakes, Crakes Media Consulting, former Senior Vice President of Fox Sports Senior Vice President Programming in Research & Content Strategy

I’m seeing a 6.5 Household Rating and 11.5 million viewers for a six game series – tying the second lowest Household rating for an NBA Finals since 2002 (Lakers-Nets) & the lowest viewing average since Spurs-Cavs pulled 9.3 million viewers in 2007. While Lakers-Heat is a pretty good match-up the already unique viewing environment that features lower usage will also see every game of the 2020 NBA Finals face significant atypical Tier1 competition from the MLB Playoffs, the NFL or both (a NBA Finals Game 6 will face both Sunday Night Football and ALCS Game 2).

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

Positives for the NBA Finals ratings: LeBron in the Finals.
Negatives for the NBA Finals ratings: Cord cutting, election year, pandemic.
Prediction: 9.0 rating/15.5 million

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

I don’t think the Lakers being in the NBA Finals for the first time in more than a decade will help the ratings. The Western Conference Finals were down 41% compared to last season and I think that trend continues in the NBA Finals. Too many distractions in our country combined with the baseball playoffs, college football and the NFL will hurt audience figures. I will predict a 6.5 rating and 10 million viewers.

Dan Serafin, News 12 The Bronx/Brooklyn sports anchor

It’s a sports landscape that we’ve never seen before as the NBA Finals match-up against the MLB Playoffs and the middle of the NFL season. That cluttered sports schedule means that we’ll see a dip in the ratings, I’m predicting an 8 rating.

Jay Posner, sports editor of San Diego Union-Tribune

LeBron could have played in the NFL, but it’ll be tough for him to beat America’s Game in the ratings … 15.8 million

David Barron, Houston Chronicle sports media columnist

I would guess 8 million, based on the crowded event schedule.

Dave Bauder, Associated Press

14.8 million.

Terence Henderson, T Dog Media

LeBron brings viewers – but games three and six (if necessary) will have a tough time against the NFL and overall face the MLB playoffs. My prediction is an 8.2 rating and 14.7 million viewers.

Scott Nolte, KUYY deejay/sports announcer

LA Lakers win 4-2

8.5 million

With teams unable to play on their home court, I feel that the nation has almost forgot about the NBA and NHL and I don’t feel like it will provide good ratings because of it

Jason Jacobs, KUOO deejay/sports announcer

This is a tough one. I know ratings for the NBA playoffs have been down this year. The odd time of year, declining traditional TV ratings across the board, and competition from football hasn’t helped. I also think there is a small segment of the population turned off by the social justice initiatives, although I’d be willing to bet that number is much smaller than some people think it is. Having the Lakers in the finals should help some but I just think there’s too many things going against it for it to grow from last year. I’ll say 12 million viewers. If they can go 7 games that will help a lot. The games versus the NFL could very easily dip below 10 million.