Way back in the fall, when it looked like we might not even have an NBA this year, various pundits and commentators (including me) guessed that missing any amount of games this season would do meaningful short-term damage to the league's popularity. However, the 16 games lost to this delayed season have proven to have had little effect. In April, we noted that national TV ratings actually improved this season, and playoff ratings have been strong, as well.
Game 1 of the Miami Heat-Oklahoma City Thunder series drew an 11.8 overnight Nielsen rating on ABC Tuesday night, the network's highest overnight for the opening game of a Finals series since it acquired NBA rights prior to the 2002-03 season, SportsBusiness Daily reports.
While last year's NBA ratings success was largely attributed to the formation of Miami's Big Three stirring up interest in the league, the 11.8 for Tuesday's game marks a 10 percent jump from a 10.7 overnight for the Mavericks-Heat opener last year. While the Thunder offer their own compelling storylines, the novelty around the Heat apparently hasn't worn off.
It's also the best overnight for the opening game of an NBA Finals series since NBC earned a 12.9 for Lakers-Nets in '02.
Several of the NBA Finals matchups during that time haven't been great for ratings — Spurs/Nets in 2003 and Spurs/Pistons in 2005, to name two — but there were also two Lakers/Celtics matchups, the sort of marquee matchup typically identified as the ideal for the NBA and its TV partners. For a matchup between Miami (16th-biggest market as of 2010) and Oklahoma City (44th-biggest market) to do this well says a lot about the stature of the NBA in this moment.
Obviously, that stature is related to compelling players like the still-loathed LeBron James and budding global icon Kevin Durant. When players of their greatness meet, people watch. And while the NBA might not have done quite so well with another combination of times, that fact that it's been able to draw so many viewers with teams from smaller markets says a lot about the state of the league. We haven't seen varied star power like this since the '90s.
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