Sorry, LeBron fans.
Golden State has been consistently better on the basketball court than your Cavs over the past week. But it turns out they’re also better in another department–they’re the bigger TV draw.
Yes, bigger even than the undeniable best player on the planet.
The NBA Finals are heading to another stellar ratings year on ABC. And the Warriors and Cavaliers are responsible. Coming into Game 4 Friday night, with Golden State up 3-0, the telecasts have averaged 18 million viewers including streaming platforms.
That continues an improbable four-year streak that began with the first matchup between Stephen Curry’s Warriors and LeBron James’s Cavs in 2015, when total viewership reached the impressive benchmark of 20 million. It was the first time the Finals averaged above 18 million time since 2010 and only the third time since ABC took over the series from NBC in 2003.
The numbers only grew from there. The first Warriors-Cavs rematch, in 2016, saw average viewership climb to 20.2 million. Then last year, despite a ho-hum five-game affair, they rose even further, to 20.5 million. That’s an astounding number — the highest since all the way back to that Michael Jordan-Karl Malone classic of 1998, ancient history in television-viewership terms.
This trend has been nothing short of remarkable, defying the so-called ratings’ gravity that has plagued professional sports. For comparison’s sake, the World Series has hit 20 million average viewers only once since 2004, and that was the Cubs’ historic win in 2016. The NFL, though the numbers are still stratospheric, saw a 7 percent drop at the Super Bowl this year and a 10 percent plunge in the regular season.
The NBA was actually headed there too. The 2014 finals that preceded this run of Warriors-Cavaliers matchups was the lowest-viewed in five years, barely reaching 15 million in average total viewers. Then the Dubs and Cavs showed up to make the NBA Finals their annual grudge match. And things began picking up.
This year’s number probably won’t reach 20 million. But it will still exceed 18 million. And if the Cavs can pull off a victory on its home court Friday and add some intrigue, expect the figure to top 19 million. (Overall NBA viewership was up 8 percent this past regular season, by the way; on ABC in particular it rose by 17 percent. The Warriors and the Cavaliers were the two most-watched teams, but a significant margin.)
Clearly both the Warriors and Cavs are Finals draws, with each club offering plenty of reasons to attract viewers. The dynasty vs the legend. Teamwork vs. celebrity. Flawless execution vs Unstoppable dominance. The celebrated champion against, the, well, less embraced champions. (People watch the Warriors to root against them — hey, it still counts.)
Yes, each is a draw. But which is the bigger draw?
This doesn’t need to be just a barstool conversation. There are numbers! Lots of numbers. And they point to an edge — insult to injury, LeBron fans — for the Warriors.
Consider: A LeBron team made the finals for four years before he played against the Warriors — his Heat went every year from 2011-2014. And the ratings, while not disastrous, were a good few notches below this past four years. Total viewership didn’t hit 17.5 million in any year. Two of the years they failed to hit 17 million.
Ah, but he was playing in a finals with a disliked Miami team, you say, not a lovable Cavs team. Well, fortunately there’s an instance of that too — in 2007. That’s when James’s Cavs played the Spurs, as the latter won their fourth title. Average viewership was 9.3 million. That’s not just bad — it’s the lowest-watched NBA Finals in history.
Still not convinced this golden age is more attributable to Golden State? Here’s a final bit of proof.
The Warriors and Cavaliers played a combined 58 games on ESPN, ABC and TNT this year. The Warriors played 31 of them. They averaged 2.72 million viewers in those games. The Cavs? They averaged 2.65 million.
The Dubs-LeBron rematch almost didn’t happen this year. Both teams were pushed to seven games in the conference finals by their respective opponents, Houston and Boston. At ABC and ESPN, there was a debate in the halls and the cafeterias: If one 2017 finalist failed to return, what would happen? Which title series would draw better, a Warriors-Celtics contest or a Cavs-Rockets skirmish? Which of the two returning finalists was the active ingredient in strong ratings?
It turns out the debate has a winner. We love to watch LeBron, but we love to watch the Warriors more. Even if it is hate-watching.