If ABC is anticipating huge Nielsen ratings for its exclusive television broadcasts of a fascinating NBA Finals matchup between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, well, that’s because in a sense it has already received them.
The Warriors-Cavaliers showdown already has proven a ratings winner once for the network, with Golden State’s six-game victory over Cleveland last June earning an average overnight rating of 13.6. It ranked as the highest-rated Finals for ABC since it gained the broadcast rights in 2002, and is the highest-rated since Michael Jordan’s Bulls defeated the Jazz in six games on NBC in 1998.
The sequel is often more anticipated than the original, so this year’s Finals began Thursday night amid much fanfare, even for a championship round. Part of the reason for the collective eagerness of basketball aficionados to witness how this series plays out is the star power on the court, including arguably the two best players in the league in LeBron James and two-time reigning MVP Stephen Curry.
There is added suspense this time around because James has some high-profile reinforcements. Kevin Love missed last year’s series after suffering a shoulder injury, while Kyrie Irving was injured and lost for the series in Game 1. Their presence theoretically makes the degree of difficulty greater for the Warriors.
Then again, the Warriors were Finals novices last year; they’re battle-tested now, and they carry with them the requisite brash confidence of a defending champion. They reached the Finals in stunning fashion, rallying from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder in seven games in the Western Conference finals. Their Game 7 performance was the epitome of a champion rising to the occasion.
Having set an NBA record with 73 regular-season wins, the Warriors are chasing a repeat and more history of their own. They are undoubtedly one of the most compelling stories in sports, and that appeal, whether you’re rooting for them or not, has been reflected in the television ratings: That Game 7 win over the Thunder averaged 15.9 million viewers and drew an 8.8 overnight rating, the highest ever for an NBA telecast on cable. It was the most-watched program in TNT history.
If the Finals live up to the hype, this year’s ratings on ABC should surpass last year’s — and with relative ease if there is a seventh game. That potential ratings bonanza is a long way away, however. The series could last as long as 18 days because of extra travel days in the schedule.
Game 2 is Sunday, just as it was last year. But then the series spreads out. Game 3 is Wednesday, June 8, with Game 4 two days later. Game 5 would be played the following Monday, June 13, if necessary, with a Game 6 slated for Thursday, June 16. Game 7 would be on Sunday, June 19.
ABC analyst Mark Jackson, who is calling the Finals along with Mike Breen (who signed a contract extension with ESPN/ABC this week) and Jeff Van Gundy, said his instinct is that expanding the schedule is a good idea for the players and fans — and he knows he’s going to like it.
“It gives us a chance to go home in between,’’ said Jackson. “Coming off this Eastern Conference finals with Toronto and Cleveland, we were basically on the road for two straight weeks. That’s a selfish standpoint speaking on behalf of Jeff and myself.
“But from a fan’s standpoint, I think it increases or enhances the quality of basketball that will take place. It gives guys a chance to get fresh, to relax and then come back the same way and I think it truly at the end of the day presents a champion.”
Van Gundy, ever the amusing curmudgeon, has one problem with the setup.
“I think giving rest days — I’m not sure [that’s a good idea],” he said. “Between the first two games, I hate it. I think it’s too long.
“But I do like when they are flying across country, to give them that extra day, I think is a really wise and brilliant maneuver by Adam Silver to try. And even though it elongates the series, try to give the players their best chance to play their best on this big stage.
“It’s a little drawn out, and I think between Game 1 and 2, they could do better. But I think after that, I think it’s really a well-constructed series.”
It’s well-constructed and much-anticipated. And if all goes according to plan — and ABC’s wishes — it should emerge as the highest-rated Finals in years.