Sunday marked the first opening-round Game 7 of LeBron James’ NBA career. Not coincidentally, it also marked the highest rated first-round game on any network in 14 years.
According to ESPN, ABC’s Cavs-Pacers coverage Sunday generated a 5.4 overnight rating, up 29 percent from last year’s comparable game (Jazz-Clippers Game 7), making it the highest rated first-round matchup since April 25, 2004, when Kobe and Shaq’s Lakers faced Yao Ming’s Rockets in a Game 7. Per ESPN, there have been 625 nationally televised first-round games since then.
Sports Media Watch points out that Cavs-Pacers was also the second highest rated NBA telecast of the season so far (in metered markets), behind only Cavs-Warriors on Christmas Day.
If any game was going to post that kind of monster rating, it was going to be Cavs-Pacers on Sunday. LeBron in a “do-or-die” game is an automatic must-watch for any NBA fan, and his impressive start (seven for his first seven from the field) likely increased the buzz around the matchup and enticed a few more people to tune in. Indiana did its part as well, keeping the game close through the final minutes and preventing anyone from safely turning off the TV. The game would have drawn a huge audience on any network, but the fact it was on ABC obviously lifted it higher than it would have gone on TNT or ESPN.
Cavs-Pacers wasn’t the only good ratings news for ESPN/ABC on Sunday. Rockets-Jazz Game 1, a blowout most of the way, posted a 4.4 overnight rating on ABC, up 38 percent from the comparable Celtics-Wizards matchup of a year ago and higher than every second-round broadcast from a year ago.
All of this continues the NBA’s impressive ratings hot streak. After the league’s regular-season audience was up on ESPN, ABC, TNT, NBA TV and on local networks, the playoffs have delivered consistently strong numbers as well. And with LeBron moving on and the Rockets and Warriors on a collision course in the Western Conference, that shouldn’t change too soon.