While ESPN had its studio crew on location for Game 1 of the NBA Finals, it was on the air for less than two minutes at halftime. Photo Credit: ESPN on ABC. ABC on ESPN halftime show for Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Photo Credit: ESPN on ABC.

If you’ve been paying attention to the ratings lately, you might have noticed that the NBA Finals haven’t been doing so great on ABC over the last few years. And while there are several explanations for this – with Covid being an undeniable one and a lack of competitiveness among some of the recent Finals serving as another one – one that shouldn’t be ignored is that NBA fans, pretty universally, do not like what the presentation of these games look like on ABC. It’s a refrain you’ll hear constantly from NBA fans, that these games on ABC are lame and unexciting now, that there’s something off and amateurish and boring about them, that they don’t have an aura and don’t feel special and, in some areas, are just flat out awful.

The people who consume this product consistently say, again and again and again, that they don’t like how this product looks and feels on ABC compared to how it used to – and I would argue that this is an important reason why the NBA Finals don’t draw quite like they used to. It’s not enough that the games have to be more competitive, it’s that they need to look and sound better too or else many casual, attainable viewers will continue to look at it and decide to watch something else. Fortunately, there are very easy solutions to this – some of which have already been covered extensively on this site, but which deserve to be reiterated anyway, even if briefly.

And so, here is an exhausting list of all the ways that the NBA and ABC/ESPN can improve the production and presentation of these Finals games so that their viewers, who they should ostensibly be trying to please, can begin to actually enjoy watching this again.

1. Reduce the YouTube TV ads

I’ve gone over this before so I won’t harp on this too much, other than to say that the overwhelming volume of on-screen ads during the Finals is easily the single worst thing about it. They’re intolerable. They’re an insult to the viewer, a middle finger that immediately imbues in them that the people making this production both don’t like them and are actively trying to exploit them.

It’s a poisonous element that’s tainted these games for three years and there’s no doubt in my mind that they’re significantly hindering these games’ potential audience more than whatever benefit there is from having them there. There isn’t an NBA fan alive who doesn’t hate that six different YouTube TV ads are on or around the court at the same time during all of these Finals games. Suffice to say, the ads should go.

2. Make the halftime show normal length

Everyone knows that the ABC halftime show is a perpetual disaster – and how to fix it is a topic for another day. (Though for what it’s worth, I’ve advocated for some time that its panel should just be the cast of NBA Today – a solution I’m continually mystified that ABC hasn’t actually tried, as opposed to their current panel which incredibly doesn’t even feature a former player on it.) However, what’s truly unacceptable about the Finals rendition of this halftime show is how short it is; in both of the first two games, the analysis portion of it wasn’t even two minutes long, which is shameful given that the rest of the time was instead allocated to showing ads, meaning viewers have to watch significantly more ads per minute during these Finals games than they have to for virtually any other sporting event ever.

ABC putting out a two-minute halftime show sends two messages to the viewers: A.) that this network is so ashamed of their own halftime crew that they feel like they have to hide it from the audience, and B.) that ABC cares so little about their viewers that they’re not even willing to try to give them something satisfying in the waiting period between the first and second halves.

ABC is supposed to be in the entertainment industry, but there’s nothing remotely entertaining about watching five people on a panel speak for about 15 seconds each before they have to cut to commercial again. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and it’s why it’s impossible to find a single person who enjoys what might be the single most universally-panned halftime show of all time.

The fact that the NBA has allowed ABC to fumble this aspect of their telecast year after year is mindboggling, because it’s made it far too easy for viewers to turn away from this broadcast during at least a 15-minute chunk of it every single game.

3. Show the pregame player introductions

For Finals games, ABC will show the national anthem being sung but then cut to commercial (again with the ads!) before we ever get to see the starting lineups being introduced by the public address announcer. Fans love seeing these introductions. They get people excited and pumped up for the game; it reinforces to them that what they’re about to watch is big and special and exciting – all of which are descriptors that fans consistently say that NBA games on ABC lack. So it only makes all the sense in the world for ABC to start airing them, especially during a Finals like this in which Kyrie Irving and Kristaps Porzingis are playing before their former fanbases, meaning there’s extra intrigue about how the crowd will react to them.

Plus, the other reason it’s silly for ABC to not be showing the player introductions is that doing so would reduce how much time they’d have to fill during their pregame show, which they should be eager to do.

4. Keep the focus of the pregame show on the games

Again, the ABC studio panel has loads of issues – it’s more or less designed to be unwatchable – but a specific complaint that fans consistently and rightfully bring up with it is that the panel spends a frustrating amount of time not even focusing on the game they’re covering, instead concentrating on self-indulgent Stephen A Smith bits or news that could easily be discussed at another time.

When people watch the pregame show for the NBA Finals, they’re doing so because they want to get hyped up for the NBA Finals. They don’t want to hear a discussion about the Lakers’ open coaching position or LeBron James’ legacy for the umpteenth time – that’s why First Take exists.

5. Have distinct game openings

One of the things that fans adored about the NBA on NBC was how their games opened. It’s something NBA fans can picture in their mind at this very moment, because that’s how legendary they were. Even now, they can envision the short video essay narrated by an announcer that would establish the stakes of that game. Then they can picture the NBC peacock logo getting lasered in, the Roundball Rock theme beginning, the NBA on NBC logo graphic morphing into place, then falling away as a new graphic emerged for that game while a narrator who sounded a bit like Duffman from The Simpsons said “This… is the NBA on NBC!” and then announced what the game was and who was playing.

But here’s what’s funny. If I asked NBA fans how NBA games on ABC begin, they couldn’t tell you. NBA fans have a clearer sense in their head of what an NBC game intro from 1994 looks like than they do an ABC game intro from 2024. In lieu of having intros that fans anticipate and appreciate, these Finals games don’t feel distinct to people. There’s nothing about watching an NBA game on ABC that feels cool or different to them, which brings me to my next suggestion…

6. Ditch the “ESPN on ABC” branding

When I watch the NBA Finals, one of the thoughts that keeps coming to me about these ABC broadcasts is how it treats the audience. For instance, it used to be that these games would have the ESPN logo on the scoreboard while also including the ABC channel bug off to the side. But now that channel bug has been replaced by one that reads “ESPN on ABC,” which is redundant because the people watching these games already know that this is an ESPN production because of the ESPN logo on the scoreboard. ABC could easily just not have the ESPN logo on the scoreboard at all and replace it with the ABC logo and fans would, without question, still get that ESPN is associated with it.

By so severely downplaying their role in the broadcasts, ABC robs their NBA games of having any kind of distinct identity and trying to establish that their games are in fact being bigger and more special than ESPN’s. NBA fans could easily be psyched to watch a game on ABC in the same way they were to watch NBC games, but instead, by making their broadcast inseparable from ESPN – to the point of even featuring ESPN’s news ticker during their halftime show for some inane reason – their game production feels passed off. It’s the opposite of special.

7. Put the Larry O’Brien trophy and the Finals logo on the floor again

I’ve written about this before but it bears repeating that NBA fans continually insist that they want a gigantic Larry O’Brien trophy and a pair of THE FINALS logos plastered on the floor again, like in the good ole days. Those things added to the atmosphere and made the games feel special; not having them there anymore just adds to the perception that ABC is selling the product for scraps and is unwilling to put anything on the court that isn’t a colossal advertisement for Emirates or YouTube TV or Despicable Me 4.

8. Implement the NBA theme music more/better

A couple years ago, ESPN (and thus ABC) made the decision to change their NBA theme music. It was a decision I was actually fine with because I was never a big fan of the old music to begin with, but what’s strange is that their new NBA theme music only ever appears in their NBA broadcasts sporadically. And even when it is used, it’s often an alternate version of it, meaning there are long stretches where you don’t hear the NBA on ESPN theme song at all and are instead hearing bumpers featuring completely different music. In fact, their theme music is so used so infrequently during these games that if I asked NBA fans to hum what the NBA on ESPN theme is, right now, I doubt a quarter of them could even do it.

What this means is that these games on ABC essentially have no identity. They have no style, no thumbprint. Everyone loved Roundball Rock because NBC played it coming in and out of every possible commercial break; ABC’s, on the other hand, is not only a hand-me-down theme from ESPN, it’s utilized so rarely that the audience never even gets the chance to get used to it, let alone to love it. ESPN does such a horrible job utilizing this music that they might as well not even have theme music at all, which is what it feels like most of the time anyway.

9. Make the scorebug smaller

ESPN’s NBA scorebug needs improvement. It’s huge, it has a lot of empty space, it has a wide, bulbous font that’s not easy on the eyes, and it devotes way too much real estate to its timeout bars. It’s a total eyesore and not even surrounding it in a golden frame – which ABC has done for the Finals – can change the fact that it’s unpleasant to look at. It’s just one more thing that adds nothing special to the feeling of it being the NBA Finals.

The solution is simple: shrink the scoreboard graphic, make it look sleeker, reduce the size of the mammoth timeout bars, and plop the whole thing in the corner where it’s less in the way. It’s what literally every other current NBA broadcaster figured out ages ago… except for Bally Sports, but they’re going bankrupt so they’re not exactly the company ABC should be mimicking on the aesthetics front. Put simply: a very easy way to make these games feel cooler would be if this graphic didn’t feel incredibly outdated compared to the standard NBA scoreboard bug.

10. Improve the video resolution and sound mixing

One of the most unacceptable aspects of ABC’s production of these games is how horrible they look and sound purely from a technical standpoint. The Finals still only air in 720p over the air on ABC, which is an inexcusable shortcoming in the age of 4K and makes the games feel washed and unpleasant to look at, especially if you’re used to watching higher quality telecasts on other outlets. Meanwhile, the audio mixing of these games makes the crowd and announcers always sound muted and underwhelming. NBA fans complain about how lifeless and unenthusiastic the announcers sound during these ABC games, and part of the reason why is that so much of the sound and atmosphere has been needlessly drained from the production that it comes off like the announcers aren’t interested in what they’re analyzing.

But it’s not just ABC and ESPN that need to pick up the slack here: it’s the NBA too. Between them, there are numerous steps that could be taken to make the NBA Finals a more enjoyable, epic and streamlined product. The question is whether or not either party is interested in taking the steps to make it a reality. As of 2024, the answer, unfortunately, is a resounding no.

The author of this piece can be reached @Velodus on X.