Back to its normal time of year and with a marquee match of Stephen Curry’s Warriors against the legendary Celtics, the NBA Finals got off to a less than impressive start.
Thursday’s Celtics-Warriors NBA Finals Game 1 averaged 6.4 and 11.9 million viewers on ABC (6.1, 11.4 million) and ESPN2 (0.31, 501K) , only topping the past two years as the lowest for the series opener since 2007 (Riders-Spurs: 6.3, 9.21M). There was a dispute on Friday over whether ABC’s 11.4 million viewership figure was preliminary or final. 1 Preliminary figures do not include out-of-home viewing and are therefore subject to considerable upward adjustment.
Pending any potential away comeback, the Celtics’ win was down 19% in viewership and 11% in Warriors-Raptors Game 1 viewership in 2019, with the previous final set to be in June (7.9, 13 .38 million). It currently ranks as the lowest-rated and least-watched Finals game involving Curry (29 telecasts), falling below Game 4 of the 2019 series (7.6, 12.79 million).
Ratings and viewership again easily surpassed the previous two finales, both of which aired off-season months. Compared to Bucks-Suns in July last year, Game 1 is up 42% in viewership (from 4.5) and up to 39% in viewership (from 8.56 million*). Compared to two years ago — Heat-Lakers in a fanless bubble on the last day of September — ratings jumped 56% (from 4.1) and viewership soared by 57% ( of 7.58 million *). (*Viewership for the final two finals is subject to review due to Nielsen undercounting of out-of-home viewing).
Since the NBA returned from its hiatus nearly two years ago, Game 1 would rank second among all games behind last year’s Suns-Bucks Game 6 (6.6, 12.52M*) .
If there has been marked improvement over the past two years, Thursday’s Game 1 ratings should be considered a disappointment. Prior to 2019, 29 consecutive Finals games averaged at least a 9.0 rating and 56 consecutive games averaged at least 14 million viewers. A final note in the 6.0 range was the domain of the mid-2000s Spurs, whose annual defensive slogs plumbed the depths of the notes. Much better numbers might have been expected for a series pitting the league’s biggest draw against its most storied franchise, both from the top ten media markets.
Then again, as strong as the NBA’s numbers have been at times these playoffs, there have been signs in recent weeks that the league’s momentum has slowed. Even last Sunday’s Celtics-Heat Game 7 was a disappointing draw by historical standards, its mere 4.6 rating easily the lowest for a Game 7 conference final in the past 25 years. Viewing away from home made the audience figure more respectable – nearly ten million – but even that was the smallest audience for a Conference Finals Game 7 since 2005.
It’s still far too early to declare this year’s final a miss. A long streak can overcome a slow start; The Raptors-Warriors opened three years ago at 13.38 million for Game 1 and finished at an average of 15.5 million due to a strong showing for Games 5 and 6. A Game 5, 6 and certainly 7 could make Thursday’s Game 1 underperformance a distant memory.
While below expectations, Game 1 still averages 3.6 for adults 18-49, 2.9 for 18-34 and 4.0 for 25-54 , the highest TV numbers in those demographics since the Kansas-Duke NCAA men’s basketball title game on Turner in April (4.7, 3.5 and 6.0).
Game 1 also topped last year’s World Series opener, albeit a much more low-key clash of Atlanta and Houston (6.1, 10.93M*).
1 The final Nationals for Game 1 (and all of Thursday’s broadcast network broadcasts) weren’t expected until Monday due to typical Nielsen holiday week delays, but “came early” per Daily ShowBuzz. The Hollywood Reporter, which also reported the 11.4 million figure, said the numbers were “preliminary” and did not include out-of-home viewing, but were “tagged as final ratings from two sources”. ESPN said Friday evening that official numbers would not be available until Monday.