This year’s COVID-19 shifted sports timetables have led to even more than usual going on in September and October, and many of those relocated events haven’t done too well in the ratings. The 2020 Stanley Cup Final (Tampa Bay over Dallas in six games) drew the lowest ratings for that series since 2007, many of the ratings for the MLB playoffs so far haven’t been great, and there were further ratings hits at the Kentucky Derby, the Indy 500, and the U.S. Open (in both golf, which was rescheduled, and tennis, which was not). The NBA playoffs so far have seen year-over-year declines as well, and that trend continued into Wednesday’s Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers (a 116-98 victory for the Lakers), which averaged 7.4 million viewers (as per Showbuzz Daily). Here’s more on that from Paulsen at Sports Media Watch:
Game 1 of the NBA Finals (Heat-Lakers) averaged 7.41 million viewers on ABC Wednesday night, comfortably the least-watched NBA Finals game on record (dates back to 1988). The previous low was 8.06 million for Nets-Spurs Game 2 in 2003. Ratings were not immediately available; the current record-low is a 5.2 for that same Nets-Spurs game. [Related: NBA Finals ratings history.]
As goes without saying, it was also the least-watched Finals opener on record. The previous low was 9.21 million for Cavaliers-Spurs in 2007.
The Lakers’ easy win, in which they led by as many as 32, sank 45% from Warriors-Raptors last year (13.38M) and 58% from Cavaliers-Warriors in 2018 (17.67M), which aired as scheduled in late May.
There are a few things to keep in mind here. Yes, this fits into the year-over-year declines for sports events we’re seeing at the moment, and that’s been true for even sports that haven’t seen their calendar shifted; the NFL has also seen some year–over–year struggles despite playing at their regular time of year. And yes, there’s a lot going on in the world, including the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and the run-up to the U.S. presidential election (although the first debate was Tuesday rather than Wednesday, there’s still a large interest in news and political shows), and Wednesday’s game did see head-to-head competition from the New York Yankees-Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers-Los Angeles Dodgers MLB Wild Card games on ESPN. And yes, the NBA still won the night (the second-best number was 6.932 million for Fox’s The Masked Singer), and yes, this was the best non-NFL viewership on TV since February’s Academy Awards. And this was in a tremendous blowout, so a lot of people likely tuned out partway through, which damages the average viewership;
But with all that said, this still has to be somewhat disappointing for the NBA and ABC/ESPN. And that’s especially true with a Los Angeles-Miami (#2 and #16 in Nielsen’s 2020 U.S. media market rankings) matchup. A 45 percent dropoff from Warriors-Raptors Game 1 in 2019 is particularly stark, as that series featured the #6 media market against a non-U.S. market where the local ratings didn’t help the U.S. ratings at all. (The local and national ratings in Canada were very, very good for the networks there, but that’s another story.)
And that historically-low Warriors-Raptors Game 1 drew 13.38 million viewers; even if you treated the baseball average audiences (2.45 million for Yankees-Indians, 1.09 million for Brewers-Dodgers) as separate (and they weren’t, as those games ran back-to-back, so there’s clearly some crossover there), adding them into the Heat-Lakers game still wouldn’t get it close to last year’s already-down Game 1 numbers. And this wasn’t even the most-watched game of the 2019-20 NBA season (the regular-season Clippers-Lakers game last Christmas on ABC averaged 8.76 million viewers). Oh, and considering that this game featured LeBron James (seen at top battling Jae Crowder) posting 25 points, 13 rebounds, and nine assists, the “There’s no LeBron, and people want to watch LeBron!” argument used last year doesn’t work either.
Is this a predictor of anything going forward? Not necessarily. As mentioned, it’s a weird time, and a ton of sports are down. And maybe this was just a super-low Game 1 and the rest of the series will be more normal, perhaps especially if the Heat can make it more of a contest. Or maybe the whole series will be down, but things will get back to a more normal level of ratings next year.
Even if the ratings stay down for a year or two, that’s not necessarily dismal for the NBA itself; given that its national TV deals with Turner and ESPN run through 2024-25. Down ratings for a year or two would be more immediately concerning for those broadcasters. And even there, there is some value in having the top event on TV, even if it’s down quite a bit. But even with all the caveats and minimizing factors considered, this is still quite a low number for the NBA. And it will be interesting to see how the ratings progress as this series goes on.