Those NBA Finals, Stanley Cup ratings fears? Overblown, so far: Sports on TV

Any handwringing and pearl-clutching over the NBA Finals’ TV ratings without traditional big-market teams involved has proven overblown so far.

Denver’s 104-93 Game 1 victory on June 1 averaged 11.58 million viewers on ABC while Miami’s 111-108 upset on Sunday night averaged 11.91 million. Both games won all the coveted advertising demographics, as expected.

Sunday’s broadcast peaked at 15.25 million viewers, ESPN said (the network handles sports and PR for ABC, since both are owned by Disney).

Game 3 is at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday. All finals games air on ABC, as they have since 2003.

This matchup was always going to get extra ratings scrutiny because Denver is new to the finals, Miami isn’t the LeBron James-led title chasers of 2010-14, and neither franchise has been a TV draw like Golden State or the historic (if dusty) Celtics–Lakers rivalry.

Both the Nuggets and Heat have stars and devoted fanbases — one a mile high on the edge of the mountains, one nearly at sea level next to the ocean — and they’ve played fun basketball so far.

Even if not back to pre-pandemic viewership levels — and outside of the ratings colossus that’s the National Football League, very little is — the finals are doing well.

A year ago, Boston’s 120-108 Game 1 road win over Golden State averaged 11.9 million viewers in a series eventually won by the Warriors in six games with an aggregate average of 12.2 million viewers. The second 2022 finals game between the two proven television draws, which the Warriors won in a 107-88 rout, averaged 11.91 million viewers — the same as this year’s Game 2.

The 2020 and 2021 finals had the lowest and second lowest audience numbers largely because of the enormous changes and adjustments required for the pandemic and the related shifts in viewer habits. Last season’s finals were the first to average double-digit audience millions since 2019.

If this year’s finals can go the full seven games, the series should get closer to something like 2019’s pre-pandemic average of 15.1 million viewers for the Raptors-Warriors matchup that year.

The finals haven’t seen a Game 7 clincher since 2016 when the James-led Cavaliers overcame a 3-1 series deficit and beat Golden State to win Cleveland’s first NBA title (and the city’s first major league championship since 1964 — a powerful storyline). That game, which came down to the final seconds, averaged 31 million viewers (and certainly millions more unaccounted for at watch parties and watching at bars and restaurants, etc.). A 2023 finals Game 7 is extremely unlikely to approach that number.

The television landscape, and much of American life, has changed since then. The best finals audience since 2016 was 24.4 million for the deciding Game 5 of the 2017 NBA Finals (Warriors over Cavaliers). The 2020 and 2021 finals were historic lows thanks to the pandemic, and the best individual finals broadcast after 2019 was 13.9 million for the deciding Game 6 last year.

(See here for a list of NBA Finals viewership from 2013-22.)

An interesting finals viewership superlative noted by ESPN is that Sunday night’s Game 2 registered a 22.3 local TV rating in the Denver market to lead all national markets. That’s the best-ever rating for a Nuggets game on any network in that market. Why’s that interesting? Obviously, it’s the first finals game ever for Denver at home, but also because it’s a reminder that Comcast and local regional sports network Altitude have been in a carriage dispute since 2019, meaning Nuggets games have not been broadly available in their home market.

Comcast covers about 92 percent of Colorado, so Nuggets fans have been forced to pay for regular-season games on DirecTV or FuboTV or waited for national broadcasts — all during the heart of Nikola Jokić’s rise to elite status and Denver’s run to its first finals. It’s the sort of maddening business issue that could be solved for good during the NBA’s upcoming round of media rights talks.

Altitude and the Nuggets both are owned by Kroenke Sports & Entertainment. Because of the financial dispute with Comcast, Nuggets games have some of the lowest ratings among the NBA’s local markets, per Sports Business Journal.


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HOCKEY: The NHL’s Stanley Cup Final began with the Vegas Golden Knights making a thunderous statement by beating the Florida Panthers 5-2 at home on Saturday.

Game 1 averaged 2.75 million combined viewers across TNT, TBS and truTV. That broke down as 1.95 million watching on TNT and 540,000 watching on TBS with truTV at 261,000, according to Sports Media Watch. It peaked at 3.3 million viewers.

That’s the best cable audience for a Game 1 since 4.02 million in 2002 watched the Carolina Hurricanes win their only game of the finals against the Detroit Red Wings on ESPN. The final three games of that series were on ABC.

This is the first time the Stanley Cup Final has aired entirely on cable since being on ESPN in 1994, thanks to the NHL’s newest multi-billion-dollar media rights deals struck with Disney (owner of ABC) and Warner Bros. Discovery, which owns TNT/TBS. The networks will alternate years for finals broadcasts, with ABC carrying the games next in 2024, 2026 and 2028, and Turner platforms having them in 2025 and 2027. The two network parents are paying the league a combined $4.87 billion through 2027-28 for the U.S. rights to national regular-season and playoff games.

Like the NBA Finals, there was chatter about how many people might tune in for two hot-weather U.S. ice hockey teams, absent Canadian and/or Original Six clubs participating. Last year’s Game 1 of the finals averaged 4.2 million viewers for Colorado’s 4-3 overtime win over Tampa Bay. That series, won by the Avalanche in six games, averaged 4.6 million viewers across ABC and ESPN+.

Like the Heat-Nuggets, the ideal audience situation is for the finals to go seven games with close scores each night. The last Stanley Cup Finals Game 7 was St. Louis’ clincher over Boston in 2019, which averaged 8.72 million viewers on NBC. Prior to that, it was the Bruins winning their sixth title at the end of the 2010-11 season, with Game 7 averaging 8.54 million (also on NBC).

Can a cable-only final match the broadcast averages? We’ll see.

Game 2 aired Monday evening — a 7-2 Golden Knights win — and its final Nielsen audience data won’t be available until Wednesday.

Game 3 is on Thursday and Game 4 is Saturday. Puck drop is 8 p.m. for all games, which air in the U.S. on TNT, TBS and truTV, and in Canada on CBC, TVA Sports and Sportsnet. If Games 5-7 are necessary, they’d be on June 13, 16 and 19, respectively.


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SOFTBALL: College softball has been carving out a solid audience amid the rise in popularity, and investment in, women’s sports. This year’s best-of-three Women’s College World Series finals begin Wednesday with No. 1 Oklahoma against No. 3 Florida State.

The powerhouse Sooners have won six national titles including the past two seasons (and were runners-up twice) while the Seminoles won it all in 2018 and were runners-up in 2021.

ESPN will air the best-of-three finals live in prime time from OGE Energy Field at the USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.

The schedule:

  • Game 1, 8 p.m.
  • Game 2, 7:30 p.m.
  • Game 3, 8 p.m. (if necessary)

A year ago, the Sooners’ handily won the first two games, with the clincher averaging 1.7 million viewers on ESPN.

The men’s three-game College World Series finals start June 24. Both the men and women’s tournaments have enjoyed broadcasts with more than a million viewers for several games.


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HORSE RACING: The Belmont Stakes is Saturday evening and will be Fox’s inaugural broadcast of the Triple Crown race after taking over the media rights from NBC. Post time is 7:05 p.m. Forte, who missed the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, is favored. Mage, who won the Kentucky Derby, isn’t in the nine-horse Belmont field, but Preakness winner National Treasure is. That’s a lot of words to say the Triple Crown isn’t on the line, so viewership won’t set any records.

NBC had the rights to all three Triple Crown races from 2011-22 and still retains the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. The Belmont also has been carried by CBS and ABC over the years.

Fox’s coverage begins at 11 a.m. with “America’s Day at the Races” on FS1, and Fox pre-race coverage starts at 3 p.m. FS1 also will have an alternate telecast aimed at gamblers starting at 6:30 p.m., the same time as Fox’s primary race coverage.

A year ago, NBC’s Belmont broadcast averaged 4.72 million viewers, the third-smallest audience since 2000.

SOCCER: We still have no idea how many people are paying to watch Major League Soccer on Apple TV in the first season of its 10-year, $250 million media rights deal that puts MLS almost entirely behind a streaming paywall (Fox is carrying a handful of non-exclusive matches on linear national TV).

Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of services, did provide some recent comments, however.

“We’re in Year 1 of a 10-year partnership, so this is just the beginning, but we’re off to a great start with subscriptions and viewership,” Cue said in a brief videoconference media session, per a report from The Philadelphia Inquirer. “We don’t share specific subscription numbers, but I can tell you we’re certainly doing much better than we had forecasted.”

In other words, the traditionally tight-lipped Apple isn’t going off script. We still don’t know how many people are watching or signed up. And we don’t know what Apple and MLS forecasted. Cue took no questions, the Inquirer said.

Under the Apple streaming rights deal, MLS Season Pass was priced at $79 annually for the season atop the Apple TV subscription, or it can be bought for $99 without buying the full Apple TV package. It’s a standalone app within Apple TV, and a handful of matches each week will be in front of the streaming paywall. A discounted MLS Season Pass is being made available now that the season is half over.

Mexico’s Liga MX and Britain’s Premier League both out-draw MLS in U.S. TV viewers, but without Apple metrics, we don’t know to what degree the gaps are widening or narrowing. Apple priced MLS live streaming advertising as season-long tiers, ranging from $1.5 million to $4 million according to Bloomberg, so brands aren’t buying airtime against a guaranteed audience number under linear TV’s Nielsen-based model.

The Athletic previously reported that the Apple-MLS deal has an opt-out clause that lets Apple walk away from the deal if an undisclosed number of subscribers aren’t driven to the service. Hence, MLS season-ticket holders get a code to access the Apple streaming service in lieu of paying for it as a standalone service.

Last season’s MLS national matches on the Disney-owned channels (ABC, ESPN, ESPN2) averaged 309,000 viewers for the season, with ABC leading the pack at 469,000 on average, according to Sports Business Journal data. The Fox networks in 2022 averaged 198,000 MLS match viewers, with Fox itself averaging 443,000 viewers.

As for the Premier League, its recent season averaged 527,000 per-match viewers across NBC, USA Network, CNBC, Peacock and other NBC digital properties, according to Sports Business Journal, giving the top-flight British league its best U.S. audience average since 540,000 per match in 2015-16. It improved 3 percent from 2021-22’s 510,000 average. NBC has had the American rights now since taking over from Fox and ESPN in 2013.


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(Photo of the Golden Knights’ Jonathan Marchessault: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)