Warriors-Celtics may boost NBA Finals to pre-pandemic ratings: Sports on TV

The NBA Finals begins tonight and one of the storylines of the Celtics Warriors spectacle will be the TV viewers.

That’s partly because the league’s audience consumption has been culture war fodder for years, but also because the numbers are a key indicator of the popularity of a major league that’s battling for second place in America’s hearts (and wallets) after the NFL .

The pandemic, in addition to the ongoing trend for cable cutting, has over the past two years upended the television industry in a way that requires a mental recalibration of viewers’ expectations for what’s normal now. Live sport has been delayed, played off schedule and without fans, sucking viewers away just as the rest of television has also seen declines. Some critics say the league’s numbers have suffered from anti-racism and other social justice messages.

Whatever the reasons, the fact of the matter is that the NBA Finals draws half the viewership it did five years ago. Regaining some of that audience would help the NBA seek more lucrative TV deals after the current $24 billion long-term deals end in 2024.

What should help is that the NBA Finals are back on their regular calendar schedule, with packed arenas and two strong televised draw teams in Golden State and Boston.

Whatever the TV numbers, it’s unfair to judge the NBA’s popularity because, on average, finals over the past few seasons have been impacted by external factors, said Jon Lewis, founder of Sports Media Watch, which tracks live sports viewers has since 2006.

“They wanted to pass off (2020 and 2021) as the true popularity of the NBA,” said Lewis, who maintains a database of NBA Finals viewership.

The finale wasn’t particularly impressive in terms of audiences before the pandemic, he added, but a rebound in the 2019 numbers, which remain essentially unchanged, isn’t a terrible thing, especially when indexed with the numbers for the rest of television becomes.

“It’s obvious that the NBA isn’t where it was,” Lewis said. “(But) the NBA is in better shape in terms of its competition right now.”

Even if these finals deliver better TV numbers than in recent years, it’s no time for particularly loud trumpets.

“They’re going to automatically hit three-year highs, maybe four-year highs,” Lewis said. “It’s not as impressive as it sounds. If we’re being honest, beating the last three years isn’t that great of an achievement.”

NBA Finals 2015-21 TV Viewing Ratings

Year teams Series TV average

2021

Bucks suns

9.91 million

2020

Lakers Heat

7.49 million

2019

Raptors warrior

8.8 million

2018

Warrior Cavaliers

10 million

2017

Warrior Cavaliers

20.38 million

2016

Cavaliers warriors

20.28 million

2015

Warrior Cavaliers

19.94 million

While the revived Golden State was the golden child of the league’s improved regular season and playoff attendances in 2021-22, having a gold-standard legacy franchise like Boston in the Finals should help.

“The Warriors aren’t the only show in town for the NBA,” Lewis said. “This is good news for the league.”

And as a reminder, NBA TV numbers prior to 2020 didn’t include viewers away from home (viewers in bars, restaurants, hotels, parties at other houses) which can really add to the total number of live sports viewers.

So what can we expect from this year’s finals in terms of viewership? I consulted a number of industry insiders to make their predictions. Game 1 ends tonight at 9pm ET on ABC.

Jon Lewis: It should surpass 2019. I would say 16 million to 16.5 million. I’d be surprised if it matched the Cavs Warriors finale. Maybe it starts in ’18 when it’s six or seven games. It will do better than the last two finals.

Sara Fischer, media reporter at Axios: Definitely surpasses 10 million, but I don’t think it will return to pre-pandemic levels. Probably 12-14 million.

Douglas Pucci, Editor at Programming Insider: The NBA and ABC got lucky with Golden State vs. Boston. By the time they make the playoffs, the two top seeds West (Phoenix and Memphis) and top seed East (Miami) are not marquee teams, while Philadelphia and Brooklyn are both undermatched. Warriors-Celtics are an easy sell for the casual fan. The NBA Playoffs have so far produced more one-sided results than usual, but these NBA Finals should be far more competitive and longer – exactly what ABC is hoping for. It lasts six games with a very potent 14.9 million viewers.

Maury Brown, senior contributor at Forbes and longtime sports business journalist: As we look back at 2020 and 2021, it’s surprising how wrong many media pundits (including this one) are about viewing habits. “Everyone’s going to be trapped in it for viewership to skyrocket,” was largely the chorus. Come and find out that without fans, sport feels cold and distant. Viewership numbers (and Nielsen’s reported undercount) reflected this. I expect a solid uptick for the 2022 NBA Finals as the Warriors return to glory and the Celtics remain a cornerstone brand. I’d say the series will average 16.5 million viewers and could go higher if it hits a game 7.

Richard Deitsch, media reporter for The Athletic: This is a great series for sports-watching nerds. Golden State has been the NBA’s top national viewing team for many years, and Boston is a historic franchise with a great television market. The difference in average viewership for each NBA Finals between a sweep and seven games is huge, and this one in particular could really make a difference if it goes on for a long time. The benchmark for me is the pre-COVID 2019 NBA Finals between the Raptors and the Warriors. This series averaged 15.15 million viewers. I think this one will beat it. Put me at 16 million and I wouldn’t be surprised if my estimate is low.

Andrew Marchand, sports media columnist at the New York Post: 16.7 million. There will be a bounce back effect from having two marquee teams and being behind on the regular schedule.

Naveen Sarma, Senior Director, Corporate Ratings, S&P Global Ratings: I go with 20 million – I think the finals will benefit from the Celtics who are one of the two most important national names in the sport. The Warriors will also help attract West Coast crowds.

Robert Seidman, a longtime TV ratings analyst: 16.9 million — Higher on a 7-game streak, lower on a sweep. The combination of teams and spectators away from home will erase memories of record low attendances for unscheduled finals over the past two years and even dwarf 2019. But the decline in pay-TV subscriptions and TV viewership in general will prevent 2018 from being surpassed unless the series goes 7 games and there’s little chance it will reach 2017 levels, even if it does she 7 goes.

Kevin Krim, top executive at advertising metrics data company EDO Inc.: Bigger basketball markets in Boston and San Francisco (and a redemption arc for the Warriors) will mean higher attendances for this year’s Finals. But given how well the NBA has promoted the smaller market teams and their stars during last year’s run — Milwaukee and Phoenix in particular — I expect viewership for the 2022 Finals to increase only slightly to 11 million. The primary factor driving viewership and ad engagement will be the overall competitiveness of each game and series, which we’ve seen time and time again in the EDO data.

Bill Shea, senior sports business reporter for The Athletic and survivor of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Ted Stepien era of basketball: I doubt it’s a sweep, but if that happens I think we’re looking at 12M. If it’s seven full games, I think we’ve reached 15.5 million.

(Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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