2013 NBA Finals TV Ratings, How Will LeBron James' Heat v. Tim Duncan's Spurs Do? (Poll & Historical Data)

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June 4th, 2013

Quick, guess which year was Michael Jordan's last in the NBA Finals?

Marketed far more on the power of individual stars than any other US team sport, NBA basketball suffers the most when it lacks those charismatic stars in postseason play.

That's why the NBA and ABC are thanking their lucky stars that LeBron James and the Heat beat the Indiana Pacers to reach the 2013 NBA Finals.

1987-1989 were the end of the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird era. 1990 saw an interim year and a ratings low. 1991 began the Michael Jordan championship era, with the Chicago Bulls winning championships in 1991, 1992 and 1993. During Jordan's minor league baseball excursion years of 1994 & 1995, the Hakeem Olajuwon lead Houston Rockets didn't have nearly the star power and ratings crashed again.

Tired of being a mediocre baseball player, Jordan's return brought NBA postseason ratings up again for 1996, 1997 and 1998. His final year being the best finals ratings of his career (and the highest HH ratings we have in our data going back to 1974). Another interim year after Jordan's exit and ratings plunged again. One might have thought that the Kobe/Shaq lead LA Lakers might have raised ratings back to Jordanesqe levels, but they merely halted the decline near the 1990 & 1994 lows from 2000-2002.

Note that while the graph above ends in 2010, the table below is through 2012.

NBA Finals TV Ratings, 1974-2012

Year Net Games HH Rating HH Share Average HHs (million) Average Viewers (million) Teams
2012 ABC 5 16.9 Heat/Thunder
2011 ABC 6 10.1  11.725 17.28 Heat/Mavericks
2010 ABC 7 10.6 18.144 Lakers/Celtics
2009 ABC 5 8.4 9.642 14.347 Lakers/Orlando
2008 ABC 6 9.3 17 10.530 14.941 Boston/Lakers
2007 ABC 4 6.2 11 6.912 9.289 San Antonio/Cleveland
2006 ABC 6 8.5 15 9.332 12.972 Miami/Dallas
2005 ABC 7 8.2 15 8.951 12.544 San Antonio/Detroit
2004 ABC 5 11.5 20 12.451 17.942 Detroit/Lakers
2003 ABC 6 6.5 12 6.955 9.864 San Antonio/New Jersey
2002 NBC 4 10.2 19 10.752 15.678 Lakers/New Jersey
2001 NBC 5 12.1 23 12.390 18.996 Lakers/Philadelphia
2000 NBC 6 11.6 21 11.677 17.402 Lakers/Indiana
1999 NBC 5 11.3 21 11.205 16.014 San Antonio/New York
1998 NBC 6 18.7 33 18.336 29.040 Chicago/Utah
1997 NBC 6 16.8 30 16.291 25.586 Chicago/Utah
1996 NBC 6 16.7 31 16.019 24.858 Chicago/Seattle
1995 NBC 4 13.9 25 13.284 20.078 Houston/Orlando
1994 NBC 5 12.0 23 11.291 17.253 Houston/New York
1993 NBC 6 17.9 33 16.694 27.209 Chicago/Phoenix
1992 NBC 6 14.2 27 13.097 20.838 Chicago/Portland
1991 NBC 5 15.8 32 14.750 23.910 Chicago/Lakers
1990 CBS 5 12.3 25 11.320 17.190 Detroit/Portland
1989 CBS 4 15.1 30 13.620 21.260 Detroit/Lakers
1988 CBS 7 15.4 31 13.620 21.700 Lakers/Detroit
1987 CBS 6 16.7 35 14.600 24.120 Lakers/Boston
1986 CBS 6 14.1 31 14.430 Boston/ Houston
1985 CBS 6 13.5 30 Lakers/Boston
1984 CBS 7 12.1 26 Boston/Lakers
1983 CBS 4 12.3 26 Philadelphia/Lakers
1982 CBS 6 13.0 28 Lakers/Philadelphia
1981 CBS 6 6.7 27 Boston/Houston
1980 CBS 6 8.0 29 Lakers/Philadelphia
1979 CBS 5 7.2 24 Seattle/Washington
1978 CBS 7 9.9 25 Washington/Seattle
1977 CBS 6 12.7 33 Portland/Philadelphia
1976 CBS 6 11.5 29 Boston/Phoenix
1975 CBS 4 10.1 28 6.920 11.380 Golden State/Washington
1974 CBS 7 13.5 32 Boston/Milwaukee

Without the Lakers in the finals in 2003, the NBA the San Antonio Spurs/New Jersey Nets finals produced a ratings catastrophe. The return of the Lakers in 2004 brought the finals back to their previous early century ratings. The following two years seemed to establish a new baseline just under 13 million average viewers, a level that would have been considered terrible just 5 years earlier, but probably had David Stern breathing a sigh of relief. That didn't last long when LeBron James, and his otherwise overmatched Cleveland Cavaliers were swept away by the boringly successful San Antonio Spurs taking NBA finals ratings with them to their lowest level in the years for which we have data (1974-).

What does this year's NBA finals ratings picture look like?

Now that the matchup is set, good ratings for ABC hinge on a long series because every potential clinching game typically rises in ratings pushing up the overall average.

Last year's Heat/Thunder NBA Finals averaged 16.9 million viewers which was decent for a five game series, much better than the five game 2009 Lakers/Magic series. But, recent Spurs NBA Finals have been very low rated, although their opponents didn't have the star power of LeBron & Co.

A longer series would of course drive the average up, but to make this a guess about ratings and not how long you think the series will go, let's assume a 6 game series for guessing purposes (the past 10 NBA Finals have averaged 5.7 games).

What's your guess?


2006-12 data is Live+SD, all previous years are Live viewing.

Of course we know that viewership and HH ratings have no bearing on the advertising revenue for ABC, but like most historical data from Nielsen we have, we lack the important adults 18-49 ratings.

Nielsen TV Ratings Data: ©2013 The Nielsen Company All Rights Reserved.

  • Survivor Fan

    17.61 million (and I do expect it to go 6 games, with the Heat winning)

  • King James

    That list of ratings sums up what MJ meant to the NBA.

  • CBSviewer

    More than 19 million ! It’s a Television event :)

  • kbmv

    17.5 million. Heat in 6.

  • Mike

    All depends on series length. A Miami sweep could see some relatively low ratings (~14M) — anti-fans won’t tune in now that the Heat already have a championship. If the Spurs can push them to at least 6 games, I expect similar numbers to last year. Seven games would probably top it (17-18M).

    Also, wow @ those Jordan ratings.

  • AppleStinx

    “Quick, guess which year was Michael Jordan’s last in the NBA Finals?”

    1998! :grin:

  • Hujo21

    How many Americans really want to see the Spurs? I don’t. I’m only watching because of the Heat(I don’t like them either). I tell you this, Stern is happy for the NBA Finales this year, because a Spurs/Pacers Finales would have been a ratings nightmare for the NBA and ABC.

  • Aaron

    Spurs in 7.

  • Cody

    Really depends on how long you think the series will be. A game 7 would be absolutely monstrous ratings and probably push the average up to well over 19 million. A short series would probably be around 16-17 million.

  • DenverDean

    If Lakers/Celtics and Heat/Mavs couldn’t crack 19MM, not sure why anyone would think Spurs (who also draw low) would do better. Would be surprised if over 16.5MM.

  • diet sunkist

    When the Spurs are paired with an interesting opponent, their ratings aren’t too bad. The Western Conference Finals last year versus the Thunder scored some very solid ratings, and their series against the Warriors this year had good numbers. If it goes 6 games or more, the average rating should beat last year. If 5 games or less, it’ll be down a bit.

  • http://tvbythenumbers.com Bill Gorman

    “If Lakers/Celtics and Heat/Mavs couldn’t crack 19MM, not sure why anyone would think Spurs (who also draw low) would do better.”

    I agree. With that 2010 series having two big draws and going 7 games its 18.1 million seems to be the current ceiling for an NBA Finals.

  • diet sunkist

    @Bill Gorman

    Games 1-5 of the 2012 Finals had a better average rating than that of the 2010 Finals. If it had gone to 7 games there’s a very good chance it would have beaten the 2010 average. We haven’t had LeBron in a Game 7 on ABC yet, so we don’t know how high the ceiling is.

  • TomJH


    There are a lot more casual NBA fans today compared to 3 years ago (mostly do to LeBron move to Miami and the buzz it created). The ratings for last years finals out paced the average for the first 5 games of the 2011 and 2010 finals. If last year we would’ve gotten a 7 game series, I’m 100% sure it would’ve had better rating than 2010 and that game 7 would’ve had over 30 million viewers.

    Now, the Spurs are not the draw that the Durant-Westbrook-Harden Thunder were, but they aren’t an anchor either. If it’s a 5 game series it would definitely do better than the 2009 finals. If it’s a 6 game series it would do about the same as the 2011 finals. If it’s a 7 game series than I believe it has a better than good chance of out-rating the 2010 finals. And if Miami is facing elimination in game 5 or 6 it would only make the ratings better.

  • NBC Fan

    No poll for the season premiere of America’s Got Talent?

  • Edward

    I understand how Boston/LA when they went to 7 games they did 18mill, but Lebron is water cooler conversation. I think if this goes 7 games it’ll go 7 games. I think you’ll get people all around the country swarming to watch this series…….Only if it goes 7. You got big stars, two of the best teams…….Good vs Bad, Like vs Dislike

  • Edward

    Agree TomJH

  • Joseph

    It will do better than last year since Miami could get beaten; but LeBron James is still the best basketball player in the world.

  • kbmv

    7 game series would do about 19 million.

  • GoSpursGo

    I expect a great series, 17mil+. 2 great teams means great games. Spurs in 7!

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