The general consensus around the basketball world has been pretty darn great, with LeBron James playing at a superhuman level to allow the limited Cleveland Cavaliers to push the very fun, league-best Golden State Warriors to their limits. Of course, a great series does not always lead to broad interest. Many excellent NBA Finals have suffered in the television ratings due to a lack of star power or minimal market size, and there was no certainty that casual fans would flock to a series between a very familiar superstar and a team that only became a title contender over the past season.
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However, the 2015 NBA Finals have been an unqualified success for the league and ABC. As noted by Richard Sandomir of The New York Times, this series is in line to register the best NBA Finals ratings since Michael Jordan's final championship in 1998:
It last happened in 1998, when Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls beat the Utah Jazz with 29 million people watching on NBC. Since then, the closest the series has come to 20 million viewers was 14 years ago, when an average of 18.9 million watched the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Philadelphia 76ers in five games.
Now, as the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors head to Game 6 on Tuesday, with the Warriors holding a 3-2 series lead, the 20 million threshold is well within reach again.
Through Game 5, viewership on ABC this year is at 19.2 million per game, up 25 percent from last year. And that figure is likely to rise because fan interest generally surges as a championship series moves to Games 6 and 7 and fans who might not have been watching tune in to see what they have been missing. [...]
Artie Bulgrin, ESPN’s senior vice president for global research, noted other reasons for this year’s higher viewership: James and the league’s rising popularity; the passion of the San Francisco and Cleveland markets; and social media. “In tight games,” he said, “word of mouth tells people who aren’t watching that they should. We determined that 70 percent of all social TV tweets during Game 3 were about Game 3.”
Sandomir notes elsewhere that the reasons for the high ratings are pretty clear — LeBron James and Stephen Curry are two of the most popular stars in the sport, the Warriors and Cavaliers are two franchises starved for a title, citizens of the two metropolitan areas have taken to both teams with fervor, and the games have been really darn good. It also surely helps that the media has covered LeBron's greatness to the point where fans must acknowledge that they have the chance to watch a historically important performance.
At the same time, it's worth remembering that neither the Cavaliers nor the Warriors rank among the NBA's marquee franchises like the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, and Boston Celtics. Both franchises certainly want to get to the point, and the Warriors have a very good chance to if they're able to orchestrate a move to a lavish new arena in San Francisco and take advantage of the high standard of living around the Bay Area. But it's not as if fans would gravitate towards a Cleveland-Golden State series as an obvious example of a major matchup. Both teams had to develop their reputations and images through factors like style of play, player development, and sound management decisions (plus luck, obviously). Fans found these teams worth watching for reasons beyond mere familiarity. Yes, LeBron James is the biggest star in the NBA, but that was the case in each of the past four seasons, as well. Why is this year different?
The lesson here is perhaps that small-market teams like the San Antonio Spurs don't draw big ratings for reasons beyond their location. While market size surely matters to ratings, this series is in line to beat out two Celtics-Lakers series in the past decade, both of which featured Kobe Bryant and several other nationally known stars. Perhaps entertainment value depends on more than style of play and base-level enjoyment than we typically admit.
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