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Monday, May 27, 2024

The World Won’t End With Nuggets-Heat NBA Finals Matchup

  • Nikola Jokic is an under-the-radar superstar, says ESPN’s Mike Breen.
  • Disney is raking in $241 million in advertising sales.
Will NBA Finals continue record ratings?
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

TV viewers and advertisers might not be too excited for an NBA Finals matchup between the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat.

In the second Finals in 13 years without LeBron James, Steph Curry, or both, the national spotlight will finally hit emerging stars like the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic and the Heat’s Jimmy Butler. 

While it’s no Boston Celtics-Los Angeles Lakers showdown, these Finals could still generate the best pure basketball in years, predicts ESPN’s Mike Breen — and ironically serve as a coming-out party for a two-time MVP who just swept James’ Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

“He’s the most unique player I’ve ever seen at his size to be able to do what he does,” said Breen, who will call his record 18th NBA Finals for ABC, along with analysts Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy and sideline reporter Lisa Salters.

This year’s NBA Playoffs have averaged 4.7 million viewers per game across ABC/ESPN, TNT, and NBA TV, making it the most-watched edition in 11 years. The Heat’s dramatic Game 7 win over the Celtics on Monday night averaged nearly 12 million viewers — TNT’s most-watched Eastern Conference Finals telecast ever.

Still, there are doubts about whether the lack of star power will hurt ratings for ABC’s 21st consecutive year of exclusive Finals coverage.

Last season’s Finals between Curry’s Golden State Warriors and the Celtics averaged 12.4 million viewers, up 22% from the Milwaukee Bucks vs. Phoenix Suns in 2021. 

This year’s NBA Playoffs have been the most-watched on ESPN platforms since 2012, according to Nielsen. Through 31 games, the Worldwide Leader has averaged 5,579,000 viewers, up 9% from last year.

But no matter how you slice it, Joker vs. Butler is not LeBron vs. Steph. Size matters when it comes to TV ratings — and Denver and Miami are the respective 16th and 18th largest U.S. TV markets.

Fox Sports radio host Doug Gottlieb predicts Nuggets-Heat will be a TV “dud.”

“Denver barely exists on the NBA map…I’m not saying no one cares, but a mainstream audience will not give a sh–,” Gottlieb said. 

Spending Is Up

Sure, many advertisers were hoping for Lakers-Celtics. 

But no matter the matchup, the Finals still draw massive spending from sponsors and advertisers, according to Jim Minnich, Disney Advertising’s senior VP of revenue and yield management.

ABC is charging around $1.2 million for 30-second spots in the last-minute scatter market, he said. The network sold out commercial time for Games 1 and 4 — and over 90% for Games 1 thru 5. 

Advertisers are voting with their wallets. Spending from movie studios, financial services, auto, travel, and sports betting are up year-over-year. The NBA Finals remain a “vital part” of Disney’s programming portfolio, said Minnich.  

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“The 2023 Playoffs are the most watched on ESPN platforms in 11 years. The Western Conference Finals were up 44% from the last time we had it in 2021 — and up 17% versus last year’s [Eastern Conference Finals],” Minnich said. “So audiences are coming to watch the NBA, frankly, no matter what the matchup is. I think that’s really, really important.”

Minnich declined to comment specifically on spending, but sources said Disney is raking in an estimated $241 million in ad sales — up 12% over last year. 

The Mouse has also booked 240 advertisers over last year’s 184 — including the usual suspects like Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, Anheuser-Busch, Nestle, and DraftKings. Disney has also added 91 new advertisers, including United Airlines, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and BMW, across 94 total categories vs. 74 last year. 

Not Time To Panic

The stakes are high for the $10 billion NBA.

This will be the last Finals before the Association enters multibillion-dollar negotiations with Disney’s ESPN/ABC and Warner Bros.’ Discovery Sports’ TNT for long-term media rights stretching into the next decade. 

A strong TV performance would make all parties more comfortable as they haggle over rights fees — especially with Amazon Prime Video and Apple waiting in the wings for a crack at the NBA.

Can Nuggets-Heat equal the TV numbers for last season’s Warriors-Celtics? Probably not. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will fall to record lows, either. 

Many casual viewers might tune in just to check out Jokic. The 28-year-old is the most under-the-radar two-time MVP ever, noted Breen. 

During the 2014 NBA Draft, he was so obscure his selection was announced during a Taco Bell commercial. Now he’s averaging a staggering 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 10.3 assists per game during Denver’s playoff run. 

Jokic reminds Breen of Tim Duncan, the Hall of Famer who led the San Antonio Spurs to five NBA titles.

“People used to say, ‘Oh, the Spurs, they didn’t get the best ratings, and they weren’t the most exciting team.’ I couldn’t disagree more. I find great team basketball the most exciting thing to watch,” Breen said.

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Then there’s the potential TV appeal of Butler — aka “Jimmy Buckets” or “Playoff Jimmy” — who’s leading the Heat to their second Finals appearance in four seasons.  

The 33-year-old is averaging 28.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 5.7 assists this postseason. Meanwhile, he just filed a trademark for “Himmy Buckets” to launch his own branded line of beverages and apparel, according to trademark attorney Josh Gerben.

Even before the Heat put away the Celtics, Charles Barkley told “The Dan Patrick Show” he’d rather have Butler as his teammate than Celtics star Jayson Tatum. “He’s tough. He’s got that grit,” said Barkley. “Jayson Tatum is probably a better player. But if you ask me who I want to go in the foxhole with, it’s going to be Jimmy Butler.”

Basketball fans love underdogs. The Heat are the first Play-In team to reach the Finals — and they even lost their first Play-In game. 

They managed to upset the top-seeded Bucks, then took out the Knicks, after which they survived the Celtics’ bid to be the first team to rally from an 0-3 deficit. Now, they’re only the second 8-seed to reach the Finals since the Knicks lost in 1999. 

Van Gundy, who coached those bruising ‘99 Knicks, loves the Heat’s mental and physical toughness.

“I think if they end up winning the championship, it’ll be the most unlikely champion that I can remember because they will have beaten the teams with the top two records in the NBA,” he said. “They will then have beaten the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference in this playoff run. 

“The journey has been right through the heart of greatness — and they’ve been able to answer the bell.”

A New Tipping Point?

As with the retirement of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 1990s and Michael Jordan in the 2000s, the NBA has reached a tipping point between what it was and what it will be. 

NBA columnists like Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated have dismissed the Nuggets as boring, but there are compelling storylines here if the media wants to pursue them.

Like the two superstars, the team’s respective head coaches are a study in contrast.

Feisty Nuggets coach Michael Malone just tore the press a new one for obsessing over King James and the Lakers more than the Nuggets’ first trip to the Finals in 56 years. 

“If anyone is still talking about the Lakers, that’s on them. They’ve gone fishing. We’re still playing,” he declared.

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Then there’s Erik Spoelstra, the former video coordinator who won two NBA championships with the Big Three of James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, then quietly kept the Heat in perennial contention without them. 

Can he win the Larry O’Brien trophy without the “Heatles”?

“There are tremendous stories throughout this Finals… Just give it a chance — and you will be absolutely floored at the product that’s on the floor,” said ESPN’s Jackson, who will call his 15th Finals.

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