(This column regularly appears at The Daily Payoff)
By TERRY LYONS, Contributing columnist at The Daily Payoff
In recent weeks, we’ve paid our fair share of attention to American Pharoah’s run to the Triple Crown of horseracing, watching intently as the once-in-a-generation thoroughbred racehorse won graded stakes at Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Raceway. American Pharoah delivered on the track, but his Triple Crown win translated into only 18.6 million television viewers on NBC, down from the 20.6 million fans who tuned into California Chrome’s failed bid at The Belmont in 2014. When Pharoah had the Triple Crown on the line at The Belmont, you might’ve thought the stakes were as high as they’d get but, as spring turns to summer and stretch-run at Belmont is in the rear-view, there’s no higher stakes in professional sports than that of the TV ratings game.
Certainly the National Hockey League and NBC benefitted from a strong audience lead-in from The Belmont, as Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final calculated a tune-in of 6.6 million viewers for Game 2 of the series between the Tampa Bay Lightening and Chicago Blackhawks, the strongest non-clinching game TV audience since 1994. The data will improve as the Stanley Cup series, split 2-2 as of this writing, moves on to Tampa for a pivotal fifth game.
Meanwhile, after the longest break in NBA playoff history between the Conference Finals and the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers are in the midst of a memorable NBA Finals series, with NBA MVP Steph Curry of the Warriors and the league’s best player, Lebron James of the Cavs doing battle on the court. However, the real numbers are being crunched, off the court, by the Disney Corporation, the caretakers of ABC Sports, cash cow cable entity ESPN and the NBA on ESPN property. As of this writing, the 2015 NBA Finals are the highest-rated ever on ABC with Game 4 delivering a 13.9 overnight rating to be joined with the league’s soaring numbers after the first three games of the Finals. Those ratings points translate to some 18.6 million viewers turning into the series, with the numbers — like the NHL’s — sure to go up as the league is guaranteed no fewer than six games to determine the champion.
Delving deeper into the NBA on ABC numbers, the Nielsen ratings in Game 4 were up 31 percent from the Miami vs. San Antonio numbers of a year ago with the ABC ratings averaging 13.1 (overnight), up some 26 percent over 2014. Of course, those are record-setting numbers for ABC Sports and do not factor against the record numbers the NBA did when NBC Sports carried the property and veteran broadcast chief Dick Ebersol put the pedal to the metal to promote Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls to the tune of a Game 6 1998 NBA Finals record rating of 18.7 when no fewer than 30 million tuned into the NBA Finals from United States households, alone, nevermind the growing and strong international audience for basketball.
To be clear, the television ratings game of the winter-spring sports, such as horse racing, ice hockey and basketball cannot and will not compete with the television audience for the NFL’s biggest game - The Super Bowl. Last February, the New England Patriots exciting victory over the Seattle Seahawks saw a Nielsen rating blockbuster of 47.5 that translated to a US audience of 114.4 million viewers for the NFL and TV’s biggest audience of the year. Quite simply, there will never be a sporting audience viewing a game on TV that is larger than the NFL’s Super Bowl audience.
The other interesting point of comparison in the high stakes ratings game for televised sports properties in Major League Baseball which saw an 8.2 ratings average and 13.8 million viewers tune into the 2014 series, according to Sports Media Watch. Between Jordan’s last game in 1998 and 2008, the World Series consistently out-rated the NBA Finals. But, over the past five years (2010-2014), the NBA Finals has out-rated Major League Baseball’s World Series and the trend is surely going to continue in 2015, unless October brings about a miracle story (Insert Chicago Cubs joke here!)
One other interesting factor in televised sports ratings is to look at the numbers from the competing local markets. In Cleveland, Game 4 of the NBA Finals generated a 45.7 rating for the 20+ point Golden State blowout of the Cavs. In the Bay Area (SF market), the broadcast delivered a solid 30.5 rating. Pretty amazing audience numbers for the NBA which was largely criticized, especially by NASCAR and Fox Sports tv executives, when the 2003 NBA Finals drew all-time ratings lows of 6.5 for the New Jersey Nets vs. San Antonio Spurs series.
That … was a long time ago.