NBA Rumor: TV Ratings

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The NBA Finals ended with another low rating, but nonetheless put up a stronger fight against Sunday Night Football than the previous week. Sunday’s clinching Game 6 of the NBA Finals (Lakers-Heat) averaged a 4.2 rating and 8.29 million viewers on ABC, marking the lowest rated and least-watched Finals clincher on record. Ratings fell 61% and viewership 56% from last year’s Game 6, a close game that took place in June and did not face NFL competition (Raptors-Warriors: 10.7, 18.76M).

While the coverage might make one believe that the NBA suffered a sharper ratings drop than any other league, the numbers tell a different story. The 2020 NBA Playoffs averaged 3.04 million viewers across ESPN, ABC, TNT and NBA TV (83 telecasts), down 37% from last year, when the postseason took place as scheduled in April, May and June (4.83M). The 37 percent decline is in line with the broader trend facing the sports industry since the wave of cancellations and postponements in March. The NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs declined an almost identical 38% across NBC’s TV and digital platforms (from 1.53M to 953K) and the MLB Division Series sank 40% on TBS, FS1 and MLB Network (from 3.04M to 1.82M).

Yes, the NBA Finals are down 48 percent from last year, but there are a number of contributing factors. The ratings purge isn’t an isolated affair. A number of observers have suggested that players speaking out on racial inequality during news conferences and kneeling for the national anthem, and the social justice messages on the back of the jerseys during the NBA’s restart have negatively affected the league’s brand and ratings. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James has even been blamed for the drop in viewership because of his willingness to speak freely.

According to Nielsen Media Research, the racial composition of the NBA’s audience for this year’s playoffs is the same as last year’s. The audience for the 2020 NBA Finals through the first four games is 45 percent white and 55 percent non-white; it was 46 percent white, 54 percent non-white in 2019. This suggests that the people claiming to be turning off their televisions because of the social justice messaging aren’t the ones tuning in regularly in the first place.

There are, however, numerous contributing factors as to why all major sports leagues are seeing a ratings drop. In unprecedented circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL were playing at the same time, giving fans a multitude of options. The NBA restart was played in the summer, which doesn’t allow for a true ratings comparison of prior years because the league typically concludes in June. And it’s an intense election year in which the president was hospitalized with the coronavirus, which dominated the news cycle.

In the latest TV ratings, ABC’s coverage of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night averaged 5.3 million total viewers and a 1.9 demo rating, up sharply from Game 3‘s fast nationals (4 mil/1.5) to mark the championship series’ best preliminary numbers since its Sept. 30 tipoff. NBC’s Weakest Link (4.7 mil/0.8) dropped from last week’s pre-debate premiere yet still led Tuesday’s non-NBA fare in both measures. Leading out of that, Ellen’s Game of Games returned to 3.5 mil/0.6, while Transplant (3.1 mil/0.4) dipped from its previous outing.

Nobody anticipated good ratings for a fanless, football season NBA Finals, but this year’s series is thus far underperforming the lowest expectations. Sunday’s Lakers-Heat NBA Finals Game 3 averaged a 3.1 rating and 5.94 million viewers, marking the lowest rated and least-watched NBA Finals game on record. The previous low was set two nights earlier by Game 2, which averaged a 3.6 and 6.61 million. The low before that was set by last Wednesday’s Game 1, which as previously reported drew a 4.1 and 7.41 million.

Prior to this year, the record-lows were a 5.2 and 8.06 million for Nets-Spurs Game 2 in 2003. [Related: NBA Finals ratings history] Miami’s Game 3 win marked the first NBA Finals game to ever air on an NFL Sunday. It was dominated by NBC’s Sunday Night Football (Eagles-49ers), which won the head-to-head by 171% in ratings (8.4 to 3.1) and 180% in viewership (15.08 to 5.94M). In the key young adult demographics, SNF won by 105% in adults 18-49 (4.5 to 2.2) and a comparably modest 65% in adults 18-34 (3.4 to 2.0).

Let’s start with the headline: All together, East and West, these were two of the least-watched conference finals series ever, despite featuring the league’s most famous player (LeBron James) on the league’s most famous franchise (the Lakers). It happened despite Nielsen using “Out of Home” viewership for the first time ever at the start of September, which likely goosed NBA numbers between seven and 12 percent. Note: Don’t expect sports leagues to tell you about OOH viewership ratings inflation when they all boast about rising ratings next season.

The declines are steep and the lows historic, but all is not lost as the NBA enters the final chapter of its protracted season. The NBA conference finals averaged approximately 4.18 million viewers across ESPN and TNT, down 35% from last year (6.42M) and the smallest audience for the round since at least 2007. The 11 games played this year rank among the 14 least-watched conference final games since 2007, joining Raptors-Bucks Game 2 last year (4.39M) and Games 1 and 2 of Spurs-Grizzlies in 2013 (4.85 and 4.62M).

Heat-Celtics Game 5 the previous night averaged a 2.35 and 4.37 million on ESPN, down 38% and 37% respectively from last year (Raptors-Bucks: 3.8, 6.23M), but still the night’s top television program on any network in viewership and the key adult demographics. As one would expect, the games were the two least-watched conference final Game 5s since 2007 (Jazz-Spurs: 3.97M). Still, they helped the NBA top the charts in adults 18-49 for the 25th and 26th time in 35 nights this postseason. The number of nightly wins rises to 30 among men 18-49.
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Heat interested in Jerami Grant

Add Jerami Grant to the list of players expected to interest the Heat this offseason. Grant is expected to opt out of his $9.3 million player option with Denver, but it would be a coup if Miami could land him with its $9.3 million mid-level exception. Grant, a 6-8 swing forward, averaged 12.0 points, 3.5 rebounds and 26 minutes and shot 38.9 percent on threes in 71 regular season games, including 24 starts. He averaged 11.6 points during Denver’s postseason run, starting 16 games and coming off the bench in three others.
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According to a source, the Heat requested a Zoom session with Maryland 6-10 forward Jalen Smith, a versatile big who can block shots and hit threes. Smith — projected to go to in the mid-teens in some mock drafts — averaged 15.5 points and 10.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in his second season at Maryland, while shooting 53.8 percent from the field and 36.8 percent on threes (32 of 87). Miami has the 20th overall pick in the Nov. 18 NBA Draft.
According to a source, Heat assistant coach Dan Craig made a strong impression during his Friday interview for the Indiana Pacers head coaching job. New Orleans Pelicans associate head coach Chris Finch is still considered the favorite to replace Nate McMillan, who was dismissed after his team was swept by the Heat in the first round of the playoffs.
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