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.

  • Mr Mikey

    It’ll average 15 million.

  • Anna Bones Clarkwood

    I tuned into to watch Monday’s Game 7 (Heat vs Pacers)

    The Heat seem to be like the Yankees very Hot/Cold. They are the best, when they are hot but it seems like they decide to sleep a lot. They have so much talent that they can make the playoffs & make it to game 7’s by playing at 75% effort.

    How else do you explain the whooping they got in Game 6 with the whooping they gave in Game 7. It was 2 different teams & heck, the Heat still weren’t all 100%.

    I haven’t been following the NBA all season long, except knowing about that 27 game win streak & then only 3 regular season losses after that & that W/L record wise, they lead the pack like a 115+ win game season for the MLB.

    So, no idea how hot/cold, talented/too old/young, the Spurs are, but I think the number of games is all about how many the Heat want to play. If they choose to sleepwalk & stay asleep, they could loose. It’s all up to them. That’s not to say Tim Duncan is too old & not talented, he is, but the Heat are just the #1 by far, if they show up they could make any team look silly, even an All Star Team. I’m not a Yankee or Heat fan in the least.

  • joethehobo

    @Anna Bones Clarkwood

    Thank you for reminding me why I think sports commentary is so silly. It’s amazing how in ~5 paragraphs you can manage to say really nothing at all. “The number of games is all about how many the Heat want to play.” Well let me make it easy for you: They want to play 4. The thing no one making money off of selling ad time in sports wants to admit is that each and every player will always be bringing their A game to each and every game they play in. The Spurs and the Heat will be playing in the play offs. One of them will win, one of them will lose. There’s no “if they choose to sleepwalk and stay asleep, they could lose.” There are 7 games to eliminate any doubt that the better team will win. No flukes, no convoluted strategy, no gimmicks. In the age of 24/7 sports coverage across multiple networks, that’s one of the few statements you WON’T be hearing, but this is the world we live in.

  • kbmv

    @Anna Bones

    Um you don’t know anything about sports do you? The Yankees haven’t been the best since 2009. They got destroyed by the Tigers last year. Whether they show up or not they’re far from championship level. The Giants and Cardinals are the best last few seasons.

  • Melanie P.

    I expect it will do very well around 18 million, especially if there is a game 7. Looks like when the Spurs are in the finals, they don’t do very well viewership wise, especially the last two times in 2003 and 2007 according to the above poll, however, they have the Heat this year, and they is the team that everyone loves to hate. They seem to even wanna make casual fans tune in also. I love the Heat though and am rooting for them all the way!! GO HEAT :) Wow, those ratings during the Jordan era were through the roof and I remember watching all of those games also.

  • Jim

    Shoulda said Tony Parker’s Spurs; he’s their key may now.

  • jp

    I see this series going 7. Yes the Spurs have Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ganobli. Great players but no personality like LeBron and Wade. ABC should do quite well with this series. Cant wait!.

  • Joshua Perry

    Heat in 5

  • Michael1

    1994 was a 7-game series featuring the #1 market vs. the #10 market. By contrast, 1998 was a 6-game series featuring the #3 market vs. the #33 market.

  • ForsGump

    We’ll see if Miami’s “Big Three” draw can overcome the anchor of disinterest (to the casual fan) of the Spurs, because this is virtually the same Spurs team as ’07, which was outwatched by “Are you smarter than a fifth grader?”

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