Will the NBA’s first global finals be a TV bust? Experts weigh in.

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NBA Finals television
Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 NBA Finals tip off tonight, with the defending champion Golden State Warriors taking on the Toronto Raptors.

The match-up has plenty of story lines, ranging from Toronto’s first Finals appearance, Kawhi Leonard’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best players and Drake’s courtside antics, to the Warriors aiming to further cement their place as one of the NBA’s all-time great dynasties.

But despite what has been an entertaining postseason thus far, the NBA’s U.S. playoff TV audiences have dipped 14% year-over-year. Chief among the reasons why is the lack of LeBron James, who won’t be headlining the Finals for the first time in nine years. The last time King James wasn’t in the playoffs period was 2005.

That double-digit audience drops raises questions.

Will TV ratings tank for Warrior-Raptors? Is “Warriors Fatigue” for real as Steph Curry & Co. make their fifth straight trip to the Finals? Will the LeBron effect be even worse? Will the Raptors have the dead fish TV appeal of the Spurs or Nets?

Or will the NBA’s first truly “global” Finals attract a strong U.S. TV audience that’s tired of four straight Warriors-Cavaliers matchups in the Finals. How will pro basketball’s growing fan base in Canada and overseas impact overall ratings?

Front Office Sports asked some of the country’s top media experts for predictions. Their thoughts might surprise you:

What do sports television executives root for when it comes to viewership? Length. That’s what I think this series will give ABC/ESPN. I now live in Toronto (great, great city, by the way) and I’ve watched every Raptors game this season. This series will be competitive and I think the length will help mitigate having a Canadian team in the finals (the Toronto market is not counted by Nielsen) and the absence of LeBron James. If you want a prediction, I think we’ll see a series average between 15-17 million viewers, though it’s going to be a build with a slow viewership start.

RICHARD DEITSCH, Media Reporter, The Athletic. Host of The Sports Media Podcast with Richard Deitsch

I’m guessing the ratings will be down a bit. Combine the lack of Lebron, a Canadian team and some Warrior fatigue and there should be a substantial dip. That said, if the Warriors lose early and KD returns mid-series and they will pick up. I do think America would like to see the Warriors lose, and a long series would peak the interest of the states.

– DOUG GOTTLIEB, Host of The Doug Gottlieb Show on Fox Sports Radio

The news for ABC/ESPN won’t be good when the ratings for the NBA Finals come out. The Warriors’ four-game sweep of the Cavs last season generated a 10.0 rating (down 12% percent from the previous season) and 17.7 million viewers (down 14% percent from the previous season). The network will face record lows again this season for a variety of reasons. The Toronto market is not factored into the rating. LeBron James isn’t here to bring in the fringe, casual fan. And the series, in my opinion, will not be compelling at all, ending in four or five games. This is a recipe for a ratings disaster. I’m going to say the series generates a 9.7 rating and 15 million viewers.

JIMMY TRAINA, Writer of SI Now’s Traina Thoughts. Host of SI Media Podcast

If the NBA Finals doesn’t go seven games, the ratings will probably be abysmal, as Canadian TV viewers don’t count toward the Nielsen ratings. The smart spin will be like what happened after Game Six of the ECF: “Most watched basketball game in Canada’s history,” which makes for a good headline. The last two Finals between the Warriors and LeBron drew between 15-20 million viewers; if Warriors/Raptors draws over 11 million for any of the games, it’ll be considered a win. I disagree with the idea of Warriors fatigue – casual sports fans love greatness.

JASON MCINTYRE, FS1/Fox Sports Radio. Host of Coming Up Winners podcast

I think that the Finals will be up slightly from last year’s 17 million average viewership for a few reasons: Because last year was a sweep, people were checked out from it at the end. I think the Raptors push this series to at least six games, and with that will come incremental viewers. Given how Sports Media Watch has been charting that there is actually *more* interest in the Warriors but less in everyone else, I believe that trend continues into the Finals. Given his team wasn’t competitive in the series last year, I do not expect the loss of LeBron to be problematic, but as The Wrap noted the Raptors being in Toronto and thus their regional ratings not counting in American viewership does pose an issue. But because I think there are more games, I’ll go with an average viewership of 19.5 million for the Finals.

RYAN GLASSPIEGEL, The Big Lead. Host of Glass Half Empty, The Big Lead Podcast

The injection of the Raptors into the NBA Championship landscape for me personally is huge – I am much more likely to watch all of the games because of the unprecedented nature of a Canadian team in this situation and – just as importantly – I can’t wait to see if the remarkable front office-wrought, on-court alchemy that has fueled Toronto’s  playoff run to this point achieves the impossible dream – beating the Warriors in the NBA Finals – or finally loses steam before reaching the finish line.

Additionally, you absolutely cannot get a better match-up on the court than the understated yet impossibly talented Kawhi Leonard opposite the childlike exuberance of the man fronting the Warriors, – Steph Curry. It just does not get any more entertaining and fun to watch than that and I expect the series to rate better than people expect in the United States.

BROOKS MELCHIOR, SportsbyBrooks.com.

I’m seeing 16.9M viewers over seven games which is on the lower end of the average for the last 10 years.  I don’t buy into the Warriors fatigue theory much. They’re just too interesting and there’s just too much star power.  They’re facing a strong Raptors team with a true superstar and a unique storyline of their own. In the end, the NBA is a star player and narrative-driven league, and despite the headwinds from losing a home market to Canada for ratings purposes that’s what we’ve got here.

PATRICK CRAKES, Media consultant and former Fox Sports executive

I think there will be a slight drop-off from the 17.56 million average audience of the 2018 NBA Finals. ABC will get no local ratings bump from Toronto, even though it’s the 4th largest NBA TV market, the audience will not be measured by Nielsen. While the Warriors, are appearing in their fifth straight NBA Finals an accomplishment that hasn’t happened since the Celtics in the 1960s, there is some viewer fatigue. I think whether Kevin Durant plays is the only question mark. For the first time since 2010 there will be no LeBron James in the Finals. While Kawhi Leonard has emerged as a bonafide NBA star there is only one LeBron. Of course like any live event if the games are exciting and extend to seven games, ratings could reach 20 million viewers. The NBA offseason with potential trades, free agent signings & the draft may be more compelling to fans.

BRAD ADGATE, media consultant, Forbes contributor

For the L.A. audience, ratings magic happens if ABC works Magic Johnson back in as a studio analyst or – why not? –– bump Mark Jackson and put him courtside. For whatever reason, anything Magic says becomes news aggregate worthy. Double-digit ratings and total viewership as close to an 18 million average shouldn’t be considered out of reach as long as the drama of Kevin Durant showing up and Steph Curry asserting himself as a ‘must-watch’ player. Kawhi Leonard becomes the de-facto LeBron James element, especially if speculation continues about him going elsewhere. There’s got to be enough interest in the Warriors claiming a three-peat (if that’s admissible under the law of Pat Riley, circa Lakers 1980s).

TOM HOFFARTH, sports media contributor, Los Angeles Times