The Golden State Warriors have been the premier team of the NBA for the past five years, led by its core players Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green with Kevin Durant joining their fray since the fall of 2016. Golden State has reached the NBA Finals for each of the past five seasons, winning three championships thus far.
Their Eastern rival, the Cleveland Cavaliers, faced off against them in each of the past four years, thanks to superstars LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Irving then left for the Boston Celtics in 2017 and James moved to Los Angeles for the Lakers a year later, decimating the Cavaliers but leaving the East wide open.
In 2019, there emerged a new title contender: the Toronto Raptors. They twice reached the Eastern Conference Finals in recent years but came up short of appearing in the NBA Finals due to the aforementioned Cavaliers. This past season, Toronto hired a new coach (Nick Nurse) and acquired former San Antonio Spurs star (and 2013-14 NBA champion) Kawhi Leonard. The Raptors have since experienced a magical run throughout these playoffs, going the full 7-game series distance against the Philadelphia 76ers as Leonard defeated them with a buzzer-beating, series-winning 3-pointer, followed by knocking off the East’s winningest team in the regular season Milwaukee Bucks in six games after trailing in that East Finals zero games to two.
It’ll be the very first international NBA Finals — United States versus Canada — but what will this historic moment mean for ratings? If history is an indicator, it may be a detriment. Major League Baseball playoff ratings in the U.S. took a tumble whenever the Toronto Blue Jays were involved, as CBS can attest with then-lower-than-expected World Series ratings in 1992 and 1993 when the Blue Jays had won it all. Of course, what’s lacking in interest in the U.S. is made up for in Canada where the craze for their country’s teams in major American sports have been known to reach very high levels, sending its country’s TV ratings through the roof.
The league enjoyed the last eight years of Finals featuring LeBron James — its series ranging from 15.5 million to 20.4 million viewers, with some of the best viewership figures since the Michael Jordan era of the late 1990’s. But this time around, the scarce familiarity with the Raptors may negatively affect these NBA Finals. Toronto’s most famous personality doesn’t even play for the team — it’s Canadian-born rap superstar Drake sitting courtside enthusiastically rooting the Raptors on each game.
According to a poll of our Twitter followers, those on social media are nearly split on how much U.S. viewer interest there will be with a little more than half believing the Finals would average less than 15 million viewers.
What will be the average viewership of the 2019 #NBAFinals between the Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Raptors on ABC?
— Douglas Pucci (@SonOfTheBronx) May 27, 2019
An average of 17.7 million viewers tuned in to the four-game sweep by the Warriors over the Cavaliers last year. The all-time Finals low was in 2007 when the San Antonio Spurs swept the Cavaliers (LeBron’s first career Finals appearance); only 9.3 million watched.
I inquired with professionals in the media industry to provide their ratings prognostications for the upcoming NBA Finals. Here are their takes (as for me, I’m predicting 13.3 million and it’ll go five games with the Warriors again victorious. The presence of Golden State won’t sink the Finals too far down, but there’ll be just one local U.S. market (the Bay Area) involved here. The attention-seeking Drake won’t be enough for the Raptors, whose players — even Kawhi Leonard — are not known by the casual fan.):
Bill Brioux, Brioux.TV
Toronto teams historically have had a negative impact on US sports playoff ratings. The Blue Jays victories in ’92 and ’93 I think are still the lowest-rated World Series ever.
There’s been so much coverage of Kawhi Leonard, however, I think that might give the series a lift. I’m going to say 14 million viewers is probably the ceiling for Raptors vs. GSW in the U.S.
The Raptors in Canada are already outdrawing — far outdrawing — the viewership numbers for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Hockey here is a religion. That’s like curling outdrawing NFL football in America.
The hockey fall off here can be attributed to the fact that all three Canadian teams in these NHL playoffs were eliminated in the first round. Canada’s biggest market is Toronto and the elimination of Toronto in the first round was a cruel blow to host broadcaster Rogers. The Leafs reached a high of about 2.7 million in that opening round, 7 game series against Boston.
The Raptors, however, have come to the rescue. The whole country has a rooting interest again. Raptors cracked the two million mark for most of the 3rd round against Philly.
My guess is that Saturday night’s Round 3 victory over the Bucks will top 3 million and if the Raps can be competitive against Golden State, 4 million is attainable. (4 million in Canada is roughly equivalent to 40 million in the U.S.)
The 18-49 tally in Canada will likely outperform hockey by a long shot, who have recently been gathering to watch the Raptors these playoffs like it was ‘Game of Thrones’. There have been massive crowds standing in the rain in downtown Toronto and that’s a profound millennial movement.
Dave Bauder, Associated Press
17.8 million. A different foil for the Warriors sends viewership up a tick from last year.
Frank Isola, The Athletic/ESPN
8 [household rating] and 16.4 million [viewers] GS 4-2. I would think having Toronto in the Finals hurts ratings. My household will be watching, however, as Durant comes back & Steph wins MVP.
Austin Karp, SportsBusiness Daily assistant managing editor
Guessing 15.3 million viewers based on 6 games. The Warriors are still a big draw, but the lack of any ratings out of the Toronto market and a dearth of recognizable stars on the Raptors hurts. Kawhi is good, but he’s no LeBron on TV.
Jon Lewis, Sports Media Watch
I’ll say 16.7 million viewers for a five game series, with Golden State’s drawing power mostly making up for absence of a second home market.
Tony Maglio, The Wrap
15.9 million. I don’t think these Finals are going to be particularly competitive, though I do not think Toronto will get swept because of their home crowd, travel and Golden State injuries. To cross inter-sport foul lines, that’s what we call Strike 1. One of the teams isn’t even from America: Strike 2. Ask your neighbors who LeBron James is. Now ask them who Kawhi Leonard is. Yeah, Strike 3. There’s also got to be some Warriors fatigue by now, so I won’t be shocked if my pessimistic prediction turns out to be too optimistic.
Neil Best, Newsday
19.9 million average viewers. The absence of Kevin Durant will add to, not detract from, intrigue surrounding the series – and perhaps increase the length of the series – and Kawhi Leonard’s superstardom will overcome the ratings disadvantage of having a Canadian market involved.
Terence Henderson, T Dog Media
Even though ratings will be down (Golden State fatigue and no LeBron), there should be enough interest for people to tune in due to Drake. My prediction is 15.5 million viewers.
Patrick Crakes, Crakes Media Consulting, former Senior Vice President of Fox Sports Senior Vice President Programming in Research & Content Strategy
Thanks to the strong national appeal of the Warriors and a competitive Raptors team the 2019 NBA Finals pulls 16.9 million viewers, tied for 2012 as the second lowest average viewer figure in 10 years but well above the decade low set in 2014 of 15.5 million.
Jason Jacobs, KUOO deejay/sports announcer
I’ll say a slight drop because I don’t see Toronto being a bigger draw than LeBron James was a year ago. 15.4 million.
Scott Nolte, KUYY deejay/sports announcer
19.2 million. New team in the finals (Toronto) and rapper Drake.