OAKLAND, Calif. — A heavy favorite. A tired superstar with a limited supporting cast.
The fourth straight installment of the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers squaring off in the NBA Finals was, understandably, condemned as being tired and stale. Fans clamored for something new, but instead got the same old, same old.
It took 53 minutes of game time to dispel those notions.
As Game 1 of this best-of-seven affair showed Thursday night, LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry remains the league’s marquee attraction.
“Say there was, for the sake of argument, viewer fatigue with those two teams,” said Scooter Vertino, senior vice president of programming and production for Turner Sports. “My assumption would be that [Thursday] night cured that.”
Game 1 featured a little bit of everything: James going for 51 points, eight rebounds and eight assists ; J.R. Smith forgetting what the score was in the final seconds of regulation; Golden State storming back to win the game in overtime. But even with all of that working in ABC’s favor, the television rating for Game 1 was ever-so-slightly down from a year ago . . . which was slightly down from the year before that.
So is there viewer fatigue? Clearly, on some level. That is helped by Cleveland being given little chance of winning the series despite having James. This being the only time in the history of the four major American professional sports that the same matchup has happened four straight years plays a part, as well.
Still, ABC’s ratings for Game 1 this year were higher than any series that wasn’t Warriors-Cavaliers since the network began broadcasting the NBA Finals in 2004 — an indication heading into Game 2 Sunday night at Oracle Arena that, even though some people are growing bored of the matchup, it beats any other combination the NBA could produce these days.
“There’s no right or wrong answer,” said Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of scheduling and programming. “Yeah, I think there’s diminishing returns after a while with the same series in terms of casual fan interest.
“But, at the same time, you’re talking about the brightest stars in the league and the biggest brands. So it’s certainly a high-class problem.”
That’s particularly true when considering where the league has come from since the mid-2000s, when it was mired in one ugly series after another that failed to attract much viewer interest. That certainly isn’t the case these days, with James having reached a stunning eight straight NBA Finals, and Golden State both on the precipice of winning a third title in four years and featuring two former league MVPs in Curry and Kevin Durant.
Not surprisingly, James didn’t have much to say when he was asked before the series if it was a bad thing for the NBA to have the same championship matchup year after year.
“You’ve got to ask Adam Silver,” James said, referring to the league commissioner.
When further pressed, James offered a simple explanation: “Teams have had their opportunities to beat the Cavs over the last four years, and teams have had the opportunities to beat the Warriors over the last four years,” he said.
“If you want to see somebody else in the [NBA Finals], then you got to beat them.”
To that end, the conclusion to both the Eastern and Western Conference finals earned some of the best ratings ESPN and TNT have had in years. Part of that was because both series went the full seven games, but a significant factor was that both Cleveland and Golden State found themselves trailing three games to two in the series, leaving a realistic possibility that either or both would fail to make it back to the league’s championship round.
That the path back to this point for Cleveland and Golden State wasn’t the same as last year — when they went a combined 24-1 in the first three rounds of the playoffs — meant there was a different feeling around the same matchup. And the fact Cleveland was able to make Game 1 far more competitive than anticipated gave this series an unexpected shot in the arm.
“Some of it, I think, is not specific to the Cavs as much as I think,” Magnus said. “I got this feeling talking to people, and sort of anecdotal seat-of-the-pants research, I get the feeling that there was just a general sense that whoever came out of the East was going to have a hard time in the Finals. Right? So, I think there’s a little bit of that, too.
“But in what we got out of [Game 1] from an audience perspective, this is a cold, not a serious illness.”
A cold that still had more than 17 million people tuning in Thursday night. Given the excitement of Game 1, that number could be bigger for Game 2. And, from a ticket standpoint, the Warriors said interest was about the same as in past years, with the resale market even being slightly up from where it was a year ago for Game 1.
So, sure, people might be a little tired of Warriors-Cavaliers. But the NBA appears satisfied to take something tried and true over something new.
“Just to get here is quite a spectacular achievement,” Silver said at his annual NBA Finals news conference Thursday night. “And for those teams to have gotten here four years in a row is even that much more difficult.
“I think this league is about celebrating greatness, and I think that’s what you’re seeing on the floor here. You’re seeing it whether it’s an individual player accomplishment, team accomplishments. I, frankly, can tell from the ratings and from the amount of interest that our playoffs now, these Finals, that people agree.”
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