Despite the same ol' same ol', NBA fans haven't soured on Cavs-Warriors

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LeBron James drives against Stephen Curry during game three of the NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on Wednesday in Cleveland.
LeBron James drives against Stephen Curry  during game three of the NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on Wednesday in Cleveland. Credit: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Familiarity may breed contempt on the basketball court, but if the Nielsen ratings are any indication, that hoary old proverb doesn't appear to apply to the fans tuning in for the contentious 2018 NBA Finals. Despite this being the fourth straight meeting of the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers in the title series, viewers thus far don't seem to have wearied of the match-up.

According to Nielsen live-same-day data, the average draw for the first three games of the NBA Finals was 18 million viewers and a 10.2 household rating, and while that marks an 8 percent decline compared to the year-ago 19.5 million viewers and a 6 percent drop-off versus a 10.8 household rating, the numbers are effectively flat versus 2016.

ABC's demo deliveries are currently down 8 percent to a 6.5 rating, which works out to some 8.38 million adults 18 to 49. On average, about 770,000 fewer members of the demo have tuned in to this year's NBA Finals; meanwhile, the gap between the 2018 title tilt and the 2016 edition is only 129,000 demographically relevant viewers.

The Warriors-Cavs series now stands as the NBA's third highest-rated three-game set since 2001. This year's installment of the league's annual exercise in déjà vu trails only the 2017 series, which would go on to earn bragging rights as the most-watched NBA Finals in 19 years, and the very first Warriors-Cavs showdown in 2015.

That the NBA Finals would once again draw a huge crowd was presaged by the TV turnout for the semifinals round of playoff action. Together, the Eastern and Western Conference Finals averaged 8.91 million viewers and a 3.4 ratings among adults 18 to 49, up 40 percent and 42 percent, respectively, versus the year-ago 6.38 million viewers and 2.4 demo.

Making the difference was a far more competitive Boston Celtics squad facing the Cavs and a fired-up Houston Rockets team that pushed the Warriors to the limit. Both Conference Finals match-ups went the distance, whereas Golden State last season swept the San Antonio Spurs and the Cavs only needed five games to advance past the Celtics.

Through June 8, at least one NBA Finals game is expected to wind up on the list of the year's top 50 most-watched broadcasts. Presently ranked No. 32, where it is wedged between Night 11 of NBC's Winter Olympics coverage and the March 27 "Roseanne" premiere, Game 2 of the Finals averaged 18.5 million viewers and a 10.3 household rating.

Since the series tipped off on May 31, the NBA Finals has drawn an audience with a median age of 45.6 years, or 12 months shy of Super Bowl LII's 46.6 years. By comparison, the median age of those who tuned in to the 2017 World Series was 55 years, while the 2018 Stanley Cup Final hovered at around 50 years.

Naturally, a victory by the Warriors in tonight's game will only serve to rob ABC of the chance to put up even bigger numbers next week. While four-game sweeps are relatively rare—there have been only four in the last 30 years, with two of those shutouts arriving in this century (2007, 2002)—Vegas bookies have Golden State listed as a 4.5-point favorite.

The cost of missing out on between one and three additional broadcasts is far from insignificant. According to preliminary Standard Media Index estimates, the average cost of a 30-second ad in this year's Finals is $634,627 per unit, up 5 percent compared to $607,156 in the first three games of the 2017 championship series. Using those figures as a guideline, it's fair to say that ABC/ESPN will miss out on booking as much as $50 million in ad sales revenue for each game Golden State erases from the Finals schedule.

According to iSpot.tv data, the biggest spenders in the Finals thus far include Universal Pictures ("Skyscraper," "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom," "The First Purge"), YouTube TV, Kia, Facebook, Columbia Pictures ("The Equalizer 2," "Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado"), Wells Fargo, Nissan, Budweiser, Apple (iPhone) and Toyota.

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