Jun 4, 2023; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) shoots the ball against Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo (13) in game two of the 2023 NBA Finals at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Even in the absence of a major media market, Thursday’s NBA Finals Game 1 drew respectable ratings, peaking at 12.78 million viewers between 10:30 and 10:45 PM ET. Thursday’s series opener between the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat averaged 11.58 million viewers across ABC and ESPN2—the latter airing a simulcast hosted by Stephen A. Smith—which, surprisingly, wasn’t far off from last year’s Game 1 between the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors (11.9 million).

That’s about a three-percent drop-off from 2022, a gap ABC probably could have made up if the game had been more competitive (despite a late Heat rally, Thursday’s outcome was never in any real doubt). Still, excluding 2020 and 2021, which were both affected by COVID, this was the least-watched Finals opener since 2007, which saw only 9.21 million viewers tune in to see the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers.

That could be due to a variety of factors including the recent “cord-cutting” phenomenon with streaming giants like Amazon and Netflix emerging as feared competitors in an ever-evolving content space. And while the Nuggets and Heat are both richly deserving of playing on basketball’s biggest stage, it’s not a particularly sexy matchup for viewing purposes. Great as they are, casual fans likely wouldn’t go out of their way to watch Jimmy Butler or Nikola Jokic, neither of whom have the cultural cache or brand recognition of stars like LeBron James and Stephen Curry.

Even faced with those challenges, Game 1 was still the most watched program on Thursday’s primetime slate, earning top billing in virtually every demographic. Predictably, the largest audiences came from Denver (19.9 million), Miami (13.5) and West Palm Beach (11.8) with Richmond (9.7) and San Antonio (8.7) rounding out the top five markets.

[ESPN Press Room, Sports Media Watch]

About Jesse Pantuosco

Jesse Pantuosco joined Awful Announcing as a contributing writer in May 2023. He’s also written for Audacy and NBC Sports. A graduate of Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with a master’s degree in creative writing from Fairfield University, Pantuosco has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut and never misses a Red Sox, Celtics or Patriots game.