Warriors and Celtics may boost NBA Finals ratings to pre-pandemic ratings: Sports on TV

The NBA Finals begins tonight, and one of the storylines of the Celtics-Warriors spectacle will be TV ratings.

That’s partly because the league’s audience spending has been the stuff of culture wars for years, but also because the numbers are a major popularity indicator for major leagues vying for America’s heart (and wallet) second place behind the NFL.

Over the past two years, the pandemic has upended the TV industry with the ongoing cord-cutting trend, requiring a recalibration of what is now normal viewership expectations. Live sporting events that were postponed, didn’t go as planned and had no fans, drew viewers just as other TV shows saw a decline. Some critics say the league’s data is influenced by anti-racism and other social justice messages.

Whatever the reason, the truth is that the NBA Finals drew half the audience they had five years ago. After the current $24 billion long-term deal ends in 2024, restoring some viewers will help the NBA pursue more lucrative TV deals.

It should help that the NBA Finals are back on their regular schedule, with full arenas and two strong TV lottery teams in Golden State and Boston.

Jon Lewis, founder of Sports Media Watch, which tracks live sports ratings, said it would be unfair to judge the NBA’s popularity regardless of the televised data, because the Finals averages over the past few seasons are subject to external factors. Impact. Since 2006.

“They want to make (2020 and 21) the real popularity of the NBA,” said Lewis, who maintains the NBA Finals ratings database.

He added that before the pandemic, the Grand Finals weren’t particularly impressive in terms of viewers, but going back to 2019 numbers and staying largely the same wouldn’t be a terrible thing, especially compared to other TV shows’ numbers. when compared.

“Obviously, the NBA is gone,” Lewis said. “(But) the NBA is in better shape now competitively.”

That said, if the TV shows for these finals are better than they have been in recent years, now is not the time for a particularly loud trumpet.

“You’re automatically getting a three-year high, maybe a four-year high,” Lewis said. “It’s not as impressive as it sounds. If we’re real, beating the last three years isn’t a huge feat.”

NBA Finals TV Ratings 2015-21

year team Series TV Average


Bucks – Sun

9.91 million



7.49 million


Raptors – Warriors

8.8 million



17.56 million



20.38 million



20.28 million



19.94 million

While the reinvigorated Golden State has been the league’s gold for 2021-22 regular-season and playoff viewership improvements, having a gold-standard legacy team like Boston in the Finals should help.

“The Warriors aren’t the only gig in NBA town,” Lewis said. “That’s great news for the league.”

As a reminder, NBA TV numbers prior to 2020 do not include outdoor viewership (viewing parties at bars, restaurants, hotels, other homes) that can add real significance to the total live sports audience.

So, what should we expect from this year’s Finals in terms of ratings? I found a range of industry insiders to provide their predictions. Game 1 airs on ABC tonight at 9pm ET.

Jon Lewis: Should be more than 2019. I would say 16 million to 16.5 million. I’d be surprised if it matched the Cavs-Warriors final. If there are six or seven games, maybe it will catch up to ’18. It will do better than the first two finals.

Sara Fischer, Axios Media Reporter: Definitely more than 10 million, but I don’t think it will return to pre-pandemic levels. Probably 12-14 million.

Douglas Pucci, Editor of Programming Insider: NBA and ABC got lucky in Golden State’s game against Boston. Going into the playoffs, neither the top two seeded teams in the West (Phoenix and Memphis) nor the top team in the East (Miami) are in the lineup, while Philadelphia and Brooklyn have been mediocre. The Warriors-Celtics are an easy sell to the average fan. The NBA playoffs have scored more points than usual so far, but these NBA Finals should be more competitive and longer — and that’s exactly what ABC wants. It will last six games and have a very strong 14.9 million viewers.

Maury Brown, senior Forbes writer and longtime sports business reporter: Looking back on 2020 and 2021, it’s amazing how wrong many media pundits (including this one) got about viewing habits. “Everyone’s going to be stuck inside, so the ratings are going to skyrocket,” chiefly the refrain. Come find out, sports without fans feels deserted and distant. Viewership numbers (and the underestimation reported by Nielsen) reflect this. I expect the 2022 NBA Finals to rise steadily as the Warriors get back on their feet and the Celtics remain a cornerstone brand. I’d say the series will average 16.5 million viewers, and maybe even higher if it gets to Game 7.

Richard Deitsch, sports media reporter: This is a great series for sports ratings nerds. The Golden State Warriors have been the NBA’s best nationally-watched team for years, while Boston is a historic franchise with a huge TV market. The difference in average ratings for any NBA Finals between a sweep and seven games is huge, and this one in particular can really do some numbers if it lasts long. For me, the benchmark was the 2019 NBA Finals between the Raptors and Warriors before COVID. The series averaged 15.15 million viewers. I think this one will beat it. Give me 16 million and I wouldn’t be surprised if my guess was low.

New York Post sports media columnist Andrew Marchand: 16.7 million. Having two big teams and falling behind on the regular schedule has a rebound effect.

Naveen Sarma, Senior Director of Ratings, S&P Global Ratings: I’d pick 20 million — I think the Finals would benefit from having the Celtics, one of the two biggest names in the sport. The Warriors will also help attract West Coast audiences.

Robert Seidman, longtime TV ratings analyst: 16.9 million — higher if it’s a 7-game series, lower if it’s a sweep. The combination of teams plus outdoor viewing will erase the memory of the last 2 years of record-low ratings for unscheduled finals, even surpassing 2019. But declining pay-TV subscriptions and TV ratings more generally will keep it from surpassing 2018 unless the series goes to seven games, and even if it does, there’s little chance of reaching 2017 levels.

Kevin Krim, an executive at advertising metrics data firm EDO Inc..: The bigger basketball markets in Boston and San Francisco (and the Warriors’ redemption arc) will mean better ratings for this year’s Finals. But given the NBA’s promotion of small-market teams and their stars in last year’s games — especially Milwaukee and Phoenix — I expect the 2022 Finals to only slightly increase to 11 million viewers. The main factor driving viewership and ad engagement will be the competitiveness of each game and the entire series, which we see all the time in the EDO data.

Bill Shea, senior sports business reporter for The Athletic, survivor of the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball Ted Stepien era: I doubt it’s a sweep, but if that happens, I think we’re looking for 12 million. If we play seven games, I think we’ll hit 15.5 million.

(Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)


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