Deflated Finals Ratings Raise Questions About NBA’s TV Future

Cheyne Gateley/VIP+

As matchups go, the NBA could do a lot worse than the two teams the league was lucky to see face off in the championship round that concluded last week. And yet the ratings these six games generated on ABC were mystifyingly subpar, raising some troubling questions that couldn’t come at a worse time, as the NBA’s TV rights are due for renegotiation.

At first blush, the NBA Finals ratings don’t seem too bad; the average of 12.4 million total viewers easily topped everything else in primetime as well as the terrible numbers the league championship series posted for the past two years. But the downturn those seasons saw were understandable due to the pandemic, which disrupted the postseason schedules in 2020 and 2021. 

A more apt comparison for 2022 is 2019, the last “normal” season the NBA enjoyed, and in that respect the numbers are downright distressing. The latest NBA Finals were down nearly 18% from their 2019 equivalent, which didn’t feature a particularly stellar matchup by which 2022 would pale in comparison. The concluding Game 6 was down 24% from the concluding Game 6 three years prior. Put aside the pandemic years, and this year’s tally represented the lowest finals average in 16 years. 

What's even odder about the NBA Finals' deflation is that the regular season and playoffs that preceded the last six contests had been trending particularly strong and presumably should have culminated with a ratings crescendo.

That said, the NBA Finals are not a marquee attraction in and of themselves. The series' audience size is dependent on which teams make it to the top. Last year, for instance, was less than ideal, as one of the two cities represented, Milwaukee, is not even a top 30 market in the U.S. 

But this year’s NBA Finals featured what should have been more of a ratings magnet. The Golden State Warriors are not only inarguably the most exciting team to watch for their eye-popping long-range shooting abilities and fast-moving offense but the NBA’s most well established team brand thanks to a dynastic run over the last eight years that now notches four titles and six finals appearances. The Warriors also feature Stephen Curry, who stands shoulder to shoulder with LeBron James as one of the league’s most marketable stars.

As the MVP trophy he collected for his play in the 2022 Finals indicates, Curry is still in his athletic prime even at the relatively advanced basketball age of 34; his superb conditioning likely means he'll remain in top form for at least several more years. And Curry did not disappoint this year by reinforcing why he is definitely the best shooter in the history of the league, particularly with a dazzling Game 4 performance that will be remembered as the best of his already legendary career.

Beyond Curry, the appeal of the Warriors is their backstory: After capturing three titles between 2015 and 2018, they were decimated by injuries that robbed them of their contender status just as they seemed poised to extend their dominance of the league. Particularly heartwarming was the story of Curry’s right-hand man, Klay Thompson, who suffered two horrific injuries that kept him off the court for 941 days. His comeback was the NBA’s feel-good story of the season. 

The Warriors’ championship opponents, the Boston Celtics, were also appealing beyond their home base. Besides the fact this historic franchise brought another major-market team to the title showcase, they started the season as middling underachievers, only to remake themselves into a defensive machine anchored by two up-and-coming stars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. 

Was the Warriors-Celtics face-off some kind of ratings-grabbing classic clash to be remembered decades from now? Truth be told, not really. Perhaps the biggest disappointment was Tatum, who after performing incredibly in the rest of the postseason simply shrank from the challenge of taking it to the Warriors, proving those who already labeled this 24-year-old a superstar were premature in their assessments.

Had he played to his potential, it could have given the NBA Finals the additional storyline of an emerging sensation that could have induced more casual basketball fans to check out the games. Surely it would have helped kick the NBA beyond the weak 7% lift it saw between Games 5 and 6.

The six games the Celtics and Warriors played had more lopsided moments in which one team dominated the other than evenly scored tooth-and-nail battles. That may have something to do with the soft ratings, as did the fact that blowouts happened pretty frequently in this year's playoffs. It's simply not that interesting to watch one team clobber another, and too many of those games may have accumulated in time to sour fans for this year's championship series. Then there's the sheer duration of the NBA postseason, which can be almost as exhausting for viewers as it is for players.

The exhaustion factor was one issue the NBA could be facing with regard to engaging fans as identified by Variety Intelligence Platform's "Sports' New TV Formula" special report, which touched on a number of vulnerabilities the league may be experiencing with particular regard to retaining young viewers.

The NBA better hope the lackluster finals numbers are an anomaly. With TV rights set to expire in 2024-25, the combined $2.6 billion that Disney’s ESPN and WarnerMedia’s Turner properties pay each year under their current deal will probably seem like chump change compared with the sum it expects to command the next time around. A CNBC report last year projected the total value of the next deal could easily triple — to $75 billion — over an eight-year period.

Looking beyond the championship, the league seems as promising as ever. For one thing, the NBA is positively overflowing with A-list attractions. While the league’s premier star, James, is surely in the twilight of his career, there’s at least 20 different players on 20 different teams right now with NBA Hall of Fame potential. This season’s playoffs all but confirmed Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks and Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies as generational phenomena.

The league also boasts incredible parity in both conferences. After languishing in the shadow of the Western Conference for more than a decade, the East finally stepped out of its shadow in 2022 with incredibly competitive play that isn’t going anyway anytime soon. And though the West arguably took a step back, it’s poised to become as stacked as ever, as a few teams who lost stars to major injuries welcome them back in October.

And yet it’s hard not to be concerned, with the NBA seeing a disappointing result at a time when it should have been at the apex of its appeal.