The Phoenix Suns’ victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the NBA Finals averaged 8.6 million viewers Tuesday night, an increase of 13% from the historic lows in last year’s Finals, which took place amid intensified social activism among many of the league’s stars, but down more than 35% compared to 2019, the last Finals played prior to the pandemic.
Tuesday’s game, broadcast on ABC, peaked from 11:15 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. EDT, with 9.9 million viewers tuning in.
According to the league, Game 1 set 20-year ratings records in both the Phoenix and Milwaukee markets, which is unsurprising considering this is the Suns’ first trip to the Finals since 1993 and the Bucks’ first Finals appearance since 1974.
However, Tuesday’s overall viewership numbers are still the second lowest on record, ahead of only last year’s meager rating.
As a point of comparison, Game 1 of each NBA Finals played from 2015 through 2018 attracted an average of 18.3 million viewers.
The 2021 Finals is the first Finals series in 15 years that doesn’t feature LeBron James, Steph Curry or Kobe Bryant, and many pundits predicted ratings would suffer significantly due to the lack of a culturally transcendent superstar, in addition to two small-market teams squaring off (Milwaukee is the 37th-largest media market in the U.S.)
Like most sporting events that took place during the pandemic, the ratings for last year’s NBA Finals were abysmal. Game 1 of the 2020 series, featuring the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers, averaged just 7.4 million viewers, making it the least-watched opening Finals contest on record, according to Sports Media Watch data, which dates back to 1988. Every other Game 1 up to that point had attracted at least 9.2 million viewers. Viewership plummeted to 5.9 million for Game 3 last season, marking the first time ratings dipped below 6 million for a Finals contest over the past three decades. Several prominent Republican politicians and conservative pundits pinned the NBA’s drop in ratings on players’ social activism, as the league allowed players to feature messages for racial equality on their jerseys, and the majority of players knelt during the playing of the national anthem. However, it’s important to note that although the ratings for the 2020 NBA Playoffs were down 37% compared to the prior year, both the NHL playoffs (38%) and the MLB playoffs (40%) experienced more significant rating declines. The final round of golf’s 2020 U.S. Open decreased by 56%.
Then President Donald Trump mocked the NBA, declaring the league had become “so political that nobody cares about it anymore.” Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) tweeted that the decline in the NBA’s ratings was due to the league’s “concerted effort to (1) insult their fans & (2) turn every game into a left-wing political lecture.” Cruz ended another tweet with the hashtag: “GoWokeGoBroke.”
What To Watch For:
Game 2 of the 2021 NBA Finals tips off Thursday night at 9 p.m. EDT, with Phoenix looking to take a commanding 2-0 series lead.
70%. That’s the percentage of Republicans who said they were less likely to watch sports due to athletes’ calls for racial justice, according to a Marist Poll released in October 2020. However, 61% of Democrats and 47% of Independents said athletes speaking out had “not changed their viewing habits.”