We Meet Again: Cavs-Warriors Rematch Is a Huge Draw for ABC

As the NBA Finals Tips Off, Studio and Auto Dollars Pile High

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Cleveland's LeBron James soars over Golden State's Draymond Green during Game 5 of the 2015 NBA Finals. Thirty-second spots in this month's Finals rematch are going for north of $500,000 a pop.
Cleveland's LeBron James soars over Golden State's Draymond Green during Game 5 of the 2015 NBA Finals. Thirty-second spots in this month's Finals rematch are going for north of $500,000 a pop.  Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
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If you're a marketer looking to buy some time in this year's NBA Finals, you may be out of luck, as movie studios, automakers, breweries and fast food restaurants have snapped up nearly all the available inventory in the first four games of the Cavs-Warriors rematch.

On the heels of seven-game Western Conference Finals nail-biter that culminated in an all-time cable ratings record, tonight's NBA's title tourney tipoff is expected to put up huge numbers for ABC. Barring some sort of audience-dispersing catastrophe, Game 1 of the 2016 NBA Finals should at least match last year's opener, an overtime thriller that averaged 17.8 million viewers and a 10.6 household rating. That level of exposure doesn't come cheap; according to media buyers with skin in the game, the going rate for a 30-second slice of airtime in the best-of-seven series is north of $500,000 a pop.

Good luck getting in on that action. While a stray spot or two still may be up for grabs in the so-called "firm" games, advertisers have a better shot at picking up some time in Game 5 and beyond (if circumstances merit an extended run). ESPN, which handles all sales, sponsorships and marketing activities in and around ABC's NBA broadcasts, confirmed that the endemic categories have all but cleaned out the larder in Games 1 through 4, adding that the studios have made their usual raid on the high-profile inventory.

According to iSpot.tv estimates, studios were the third biggest investors in 2015-16 NBA broadcasts, plopping down $68.1 million for ads in pro hoops contests on ESPN, ABC, TNT and NBA TV. Auto was the most active category, forking over $130 million for in-game :30s and :60s, while QSR played second banana ($72.4 million).

"We've got a great combination of advertisers buying incredibly attractive targets—young, multicultural, affluent fans—in an incredibly important time of year," said Eric Johnson, exec VP of global multimedia sales, ESPN. The studios once again will come out in force to hype their summer blockbusters; among the titles that were promoted during the Conference Finals were Disney Pixar's "Finding Dory," Sony and Columbia Pictures' "Ghostbusters" and Twentieth Century Fox's "X-Men: Apocalypse."

Mr. Johnson said that Sony has signed on as the official movie partner of the NBA Finals, and while he chose not to spoil the surprise the studio has cooked up for tonight's game, Laker legend Kobe Bryant may have spilled the proverbial beans. In a post on the pro jock media platform The Players' Tribune, the five-time NBA champ this afternoon shared a clip of him getting geared up for his appearance in a "Ghostbusters" promo that will debut during tonight's game.

While the outtakes are rather vague, Kobe looks poised to throw down with Slimer and the legion of doomed souls that haunted the Staples Center during his 17-65 final run as a Laker. If nothing else, he looks the part; not only does Kobe have his nom de guerre "Mamba" embroidered on his "Ghostbusters" jumpsuit, but he's also rocking a particularly lethal-looking particle accelerator. Watch your back, Paul Pierce.

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Other advertisers who have locked in highly visible positions within the Finals are newbie halftime show presenting sponsor American Express and official NBA partner Samsung, which will be featured in integrations during the pre-game show "NBA Countdown" and in the first position leading into the third quarter of each game. Verizon, Kia, Miller Coors, State Farm and Burger King will also have standard integrations within ABC's Finals broadcasts, while Intel returns for its stop-action 360 Experience, which freezes the action a la the "bullet time" sequences in the film "The Matrix" before pivoting the captured moment on its axis.

Last year's six-game Cavs-Warriors showdown averaged 19.9 million viewers and an 11.6 household rating, making it the highest-rated NBA Finals since the 2001 Lakers-Sixers series drew a 12.1. If Steph Curry and LeBron James battle it out for a full seven-game flight, the deciding game could very well reach more than 30 million viewers, topping Game 7 of the 2010 Celtics-Lakers classic (28.2 million) as the most-watched NBA game in ABC history.

"We couldn't be more pleased with this matchup," Mr. Johnson said. "Either outcome is going to have historical ramifications. Can LeBron end Cleveland's championship drought? Can the Warriors close out what's been a phenomenal season with a second straight championship? The storylines are so compelling."

For ABC, the odds would seem to favor a longer series than a disappointing (and revenue-squelching) four-game sweep. Since the network began broadcasting the NBA Finals back in 2003, it has played host to three seven-game series and five six-game series, while enduring just one clean sheet. Marring the Cav's first-ever trip to the big dance, the Spurs ran roughshod over Cleveland in the 2007 Finals, which has the dubious distinction of being the lowest-rated series in the modern TV era. To put the Nielsen data into context, the 6.2 household rating ABC eked out over the course of those four nights was less than one-third of the 18.7 rating NBC notched in the legendary Bulls-Jazz series in 1998. (The impact Michael Jordan had on the NBA's national footprint is impossible to overstate. MJ's "farewell" performance in Game 6 drew NBC a staggering 72 million viewers and a 22.3 household rating, setting a record that is all but certain to remain intact.)

It took the Warriors six games to put away the injury-plagued Cavs in last year's title tilt, and two of those contests were decided in overtime. "This is a very different matchup than last year, when Cleveland was hampered by injuries to some of their key guys," Mr. Johnson notes, and indeed, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are healthy, hungry and raring to go. After being sidelined in Game 1 of the 2015 Finals with a shattered kneecap, Mr. Irving has come roaring back, racking up 24.3 points per game over 14 playoff starts, second only to LeBron's 24.6. Cleveland's top rebounder with 9.6 boards per game, Mr. Love is also Cleveland's third most-prolific scorer of the postseason. With these two comeback kids playing alongside Ohio's favorite son, Golden State is anything but a lock.

The 2016 NBA Finals tips off tonight at 9 p.m. EDT on ABC, where it will lead out of a special half-hour pregame edition of "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and an installment of "NBA Countdown." Mr. Kimmel's guests will include Warriors Klay Thompson and Steph Curry, who will be roped into participating in the show's popular "Mean Tweets" segment. (A hundred bucks says at least one of those impolite social media posts will refer to Mr. Curry's unsightly dangling mouthguard.)