As Ratings for the NBA Finals Sag, Feel Free to Blame Gen Z

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JohnWallStreet is on vacation until June 27. Today’s column is from Sportico media writer Anthony Crupi.

Steph Curry’s three-point touch vanished like Doughboy at the end of Boyz n da Hood, and yet the Warriors still dispatched an overmatched Celtics team 104-94 in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. In what marked the first time in his storied career that he failed to hit a three in a postseason game, Curry went 0-for-9 from beyond the arc and 7-for-22 from the field, finishing with 16 points. Three nights earlier, the Finals MVP shot out the lights with a 43-point performance in Boston.

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Of course, it all worked out in the end for Curry and the Warriors, whose 103-90 Game 6 victory Thursday clinched their fourth title in eight years.

Go back and watch the tape from Monday night’s broadcast on ABC and you’ll find no evidence of a hitch in his mechanics or a compensatory step-up in Boston’s already formidable defensive scheme. It’s the nothingness that confounds; we’ve been conditioned to anticipate the snap of the net in advance of the moment the ball leaves Curry’s fingertips, and when the ball doesn’t live up to its end of the bargain, the brain reacts with something like baffled indignation. Rather than serving up the most plausible explanation—as a mortal, Steph Curry is as in thrall to the laws of physics as anyone else—the synapses of the brain start misfiring all over the place.

A similar dynamic is at play as NBA observers try and piece together a rational explanation for why the ratings for these Finals have underwhelmed. Through the first five games of the Warriors-Celtics showdown, ABC is averaging 12.1 million viewers, a 15% drop versus the analogous stretch of the 2019 NBA Finals—the last regularly scheduled championship series before the disruptions of the pandemic made a hash of the last two years.

While changes in Nielsen’s ratings currency and a host of other outliers have made for tough comps with the pre-pandemic Finals, the less-than-spectacular TV turnout is a mystifying bummer for ABC and its advertisers. In theory, this matchup of the two biggest playoff draws should be serving up around 15 million viewers per game, and the gap between expectation and reality demands filling in. But as with the efforts to explain away Curry’s cold hand—as espoused by some of Twitter’s most demented users, the Child of Divorce Theory is gloriously insipid—practicality is being boxed out by folly.

Rather than flailing around wildly with theories that are either unquantifiable or based on false assumptions—the “nobody cares about the NBA” trope as babbled by the usual gaggle of online knuckledraggers is demonstrably false, as 12.1 million viewers is in no way proof of wholesale indifference—let’s have a crack at the hard data. On the one hand, the number of people watching primetime TV in June is down 26% compared to the analogous period in 2019, which is in keeping with the industry-wide loss of nearly 18 million traditional pay-TV subscribers over the same stretch. On the other hand, the household ratings for the first five games suggests that out-of-home deliveries, which weren’t tabulated three years ago, have inflated this year’s numbers by around 1.4 million viewers per game. Eliminate those bonus eyeballs and the current linear-TV average is now down nearly 25% compared to 2019, when the overall numbers were already hampered because Toronto has no home-market representation in the U.S.

All of which is to say that the 2022 ratings are about what you might expect—if Toronto and Golden State were facing off in a rematch of 2019. But that’s not the case, and certainly not what advertisers had on their minds before the opening tip on June 2. Two top 10 media markets, repped by the season’s two biggest draws. The haughty, 17-title imprimatur of the Celtics meets the feel-good comeback story that is Golden State. East Coast-West Coast. De Niro and Pacino squaring off in the coffee-shop scene in Heat. Irresistible force, meet immovable object.

So what’s different this time around? Is it the dearth of nail-biters? Through Game 5, the average margin of victory in the series was 13.5 points, and while a fourth quarter scoring drought probably didn’t help matters—toss out Game 1, when Boston stole a win with a 40-16 run, and the Celtics averaged 21.5 points in the quarter, a half-point shy of the Warriors’ output—a double-digit lead coupled with fewer buckets is a recipe for late-game viewer churn. OK, fine: The lack of thrills down the stretch may have something to do with the general erosion of deliveries. This is certainly more plausible than the late start-time theory, since the 2019 broadcasts also tipped off at 9 p.m EDT.

But again, let’s stick to the quantifiable. The truth is out there, and it’s hiding in plain sight; in this case, more than a little blame has to fall to the league’s younger fans. As one might expect given the shift from linear TV to streaming platforms, this year’s Finals have suffered a not-insignificant dropoff among viewers 18-34 and 18-49. Whereas the 18-34 set made up 21% of the Finals audience in 2019, they now account for just 17% of this series’ overall deliveries. And while 17% is still an enviable result, given that the average broadcast show’s audience in 2021-22 was about 7% adults under 35, the shrinking share of the people who represent the NBA’s future majority is disconcerting.

Unfortunately, nobody has figured out a way to convince younger fans to actually sit down and watch an entire game the way their parents and grandparents and weird, sepia-toned great-grandparents did before them. The genie’s out of the bottle, and it’s mainlining TikTok. And it’s not just a sports or a TV issue; as a class, the 18-34 set seems practically immune to the pleasures of long-form entertainment. Despite a clear preference for consuming content via streaming platforms, the under-35 crowd accounts for just 21% of time spent with streaming video, whereas the 36-and-up gang eats up 62% of the digital feast. (The creaky 55+ mob, which should be out buying “Ask Me About My Grandchild” bumper stickers and cozying up to Blue Bloods, account for 31% of all streaming-video consumption. Presumably, Yellowstone and movies where Robert Duvall rides around on a horse make up the bulk of the AARP streaming regimen.)

A similar winnowing is evident among adults 18-49, which currently make up 41% of the NBA Finals audience, down from 45% three years ago. As far as TV is concerned, this is still a fantastic showing for the members of the dollar demo, given that the sub-50 crowd makes up just 17% of primetime entertainment deliveries.

If there’s little to be done to reverse the effects of a categorical shift in how younger fans interact with live sports content, the league can take solace in knowing that none of this is going to impact the massive jump in rights fees it will realize before the legacy pact with Disney/Turner Sports expires in 2025. Given a current cost of $1.4 billion per year, the NBA is probably looking at an annual haul of $3 billion once it works out its next big deal.

And for ABC, while makegoods will eat into some of its projected ad revenue, the network won the series outright as soon as it became clear that at least six games would be needed to crown a champion. Even after factoring in the cost of the necessary audience deficiency units, ABC will walk away with more than a quarter-billion dollars in ad revenue, a haul that would take forever to accrue by way of its standard entertainment fare. Other than the Celtics, who are young and will presumably do something about their propensity to turn the ball over, there are no real losers here.

Junk Ball Drawer
How About Them Apples: Great news for advertisers: Judging by the sheer volume of Twitter users who’ve spent the last few weeks cursing out Matt Damon for shilling for Crypto.com, it appears that people still buy things they see promoted on TV—especially when those things are endorsed by a celebrity. Those who were swayed by Damon’s first appearance in the “Fortune Favors the Brave” campaign have seen the value of their investment drop 65%, and while a lot of guys with cartoon-monkey avatars are really steamed at the actor, it’s worth noting that his on-screen résumé should have played more of a factor in their financial calculus. From The Departed to The Talented Mr. Ripley, the man is forever playing a scoundrel. By all means, buy a bong if Seth Rogen tells you to, but if you take investment advice from Tom Ripley, you have no right to get all cheesed off when the bottom drops out.

Car Comparison: NASCAR finished the first half of its 2022 season on Fox and FS1 with an average draw of 3.7 million viewers, which marks a 6% improvement versus last year’s run (3.48 million) and a 2% bump compared to 2019. While Formula One ratings are soaring, gaining 45% versus the year-ago deliveries, the open-wheel races are still getting lapped by NASCAR’s highs, as ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC’s F1 coverage is averaging 1.4 million viewers. Just something to keep in mind when the next breathless Drive to Survive story hits your browser. NASCAR returns to the track on June 26 on NBC, which will promote the upcoming Ally 400 during its weekend coverage of golf’s U.S. Open.

Soup to Nuts? The Peak Content Era continues to cackle in the face of moderation, as ESPN preps the July 18 debut of Soup with Coop, an audio curiosity in which “Cooper Manning invites players and coaches across sports to share stories and laughs while enjoying a bowl of his guest’s favorite soup. When the soup is finished, the conversation ends.” This absolutely had to have been Eli’s idea, and we’re already clamoring for Andy Reid’s inevitable clam chowder-fueled appearance.

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