SVG Biz Report: Gilded Nielsens For NBA, NHL Championship Series

The Golden State Warriors helped ABC score its highest NBA Finals ratings ever, and hockey’s modern-day dynasty provided NBC a major assist, with ratings second to only one other Stanley Cup Final series.

The Warriors’ six-game triumph over LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015 championship series delivered ratings and viewership numbers that harked back to the turn of the millennium.

For its part, NBC Sports Group, benefiting from the Second City’s heightened interest in the Chicago Blackhawks’ third title in six seasons — this time over the Tampa Bay Lightning in six tight contests — netted the second-largest Stanley Cup Final audience ever (dating to 1994).

Boosted by a 13.4 household rating/23.3 million viewers for the clinching contest on June 16, which saw Andrew Iguodala named Finals MVP, Warriors-Cavs averaged an 11.6/19.9 million, to rank as the top NBA Final on ABC in both measures (vs. 11.5 for Lakers-Detroit in 2004, 18.1 million for Lakers-Boston in 2010). The NBA Finals returned to the broadcast network during the 2002-03 season.

Most-Watched Finals Since Jordan Ruled
Scoring 25% and 28% gains over the 9.3/15.5 million marks set by the five-game 2014 Finals, in which the San Antonio Spurs defeated James’s former club, the Miami Heat, this year’s matchup, featuring regular-season MVP Steph Curry, stands as the highest-rated NBA championship series since L.A. Lakers-Philadelphia 76ers drew a 12.1 in 2001 on NBC. Moreover, Warriors-Cavs was the most-watched NBA Finals since 1998, when 29 million on average watched Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls defeat the Utah Jazz in six games — think His Airness’s pose after pushing off Bryon Russell — on the Peacock network.

According to ESPN Senior Director, Programming and Acquisitions, Doug White, the programmer expected the series to be a strong ratings draw: “You had the reigning MVP in Steph Curry, who solidified his place as one of elite players in the NBA, and the Warriors had a fantastic season and play an exciting style of basketball.”

On the other side, “Cleveland was one of the best teams in the East and has the best player in the world,” White says, referring to James, who had the highest scoring, rebounding, and assists totals for both teams during the Finals. “It’s been fantastic for us that LeBron has been in the Finals five years in a row, performing at an increasingly high level.”

He says the tone was set by an exciting Game 1, but there was some worry when Cleveland All-Star guard Kyrie Irving was kept out of the series with season-ending knee surgery: “There was some apprehension, but that was quickly remedied by the competitive Game 2 won by Cleveland.”

Tight Series Raised Cup Ratings
On the ice, NBC (four games) and NBCSN (two) combined to average a 3.19 household rating/5.51 million viewers with Chicago-Tampa Bay, a tight series that resulted in the first five battles’ being decided by a single goal, the first time that had occurred in 64 years. When the Blackhawks scored late in the third period of the 2-0 clincher on June 15, that was the only time there was more than a one-goal lead throughout the matchup.

The series was the second-most-watched Stanley Cup Final, behind the 5.75 million viewers for the six-game Chicago-Boston battle in 2013; it was up 11% from the five-game 2014 series in which the Los Angeles Kings defeated the New York Rangers. Chicago’s five-game win over Philadelphia for the 2010 crown ranks fourth overall, averaging 5.17 million viewers.

For the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, Chicago topped all markets with a 27.3 rating, up 24% from the 22.0 for the Blackhawks’ 2013 and 2010 wins. Tampa placed second with a 14.9 in its market.

Game 6 was the fourth-most-watched NHL telecast ever, scoring a 4.4 rating that translated into just over 8 million viewers, behind a 4.8/8.54 million for Boston’s clincher versus Vancouver in 2011, 4.7/8,28 million for Game 6 of Blackhawks-Flyers in 2010, and 4.7/8.16 million for Chicago-Boston Game 6 in 2013.

Chicago: Nielsen’s Kind of Hockey Town
Chicagoans were very enthusiastic for the clincher on Monday night, weighing in with a 41.0 rating in the market, the highest ever for a Blackhawks game and the best local delivery in any market for a non-Game 7 on NBC. Tampa pulled a 15.2 on June 15, its second-best performance on NBC.

“A 41.0 is amazing. Chicago is the top hockey market these days,” says Sam Flood, executive producer, NBC and NBC Sports, who also applauded Lightning fans. “Tampa reacted very well to their exciting team.”

With NHL driven more by regional interests than other major U.S. sports, Flood says NBC has benefited from the Blackhawks’ dynasty of sorts. “We’ve been very fortunate. [Owner] Rocky Wirtz has managed the salary cap and made some key personnel changes. and Joel Quenneville is a top coach. They keep reassembling championship-caliber teams.”

Flood says that, while many NHL fans were attracted to Chicago’s big-name players Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, they were fully introduced to Tampa’s “Triplets” — forwards Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov — and captain Steven Stamkos. “He’s one of best in the game,” says Flood. “He had tough puck luck in the Final.”

Postseason Positioning
The strong Final performance capped an 88-game playoff run that averaged a 0.87 rating/1.43 million viewers across NBC, NBCSN, CNBC, and USA. That trailed only Fox/ESPN in 1997 with 1.52 million viewers over 57 telecasts, and NBC Sports Group’s 1.47 million and 1.45 million in 2013 and 2014, respectively. The Stanley Cup participants’ markets aside, NBC Sports Group netted a host of local-market records throughout the postseason, which officials say underlines the NHL’s continued growth.

The NHL, whose profile continued to be raised by exposure from the Winter Classic, Hockey Day in America, the continuity of production and storytelling features across NBC and NBCSN, might have enjoyed an even better postseason.

The 2015 playoffs included five non–Nielsen-rated teams from Canada. The defending champion Kings and the Flyers and Bruins, and their fervid fan bases, all failed to qualify for the playoffs.

But Flood ices such lamentations. “Three tent-pole markets didn’t make it, but that’s all part of hockey,” he says. “Other clubs gained exposure, and Tampa jumped way up in awareness factor.”

In fact, Flood reports that, as the league and programmer met to discuss next year’s schedule, it was already determined that Tampa will skate in the “Wednesday Night Rivalry” franchise.

The NBA playoffs had some obstacles to overcome, given the absence of the popular Lakers, the New York Knicks in the top market, and the Miami Heat, which had reached the Finals the four previous seasons. Moreover, the on-court action wasn’t as competitive as in the past. Through the conference finals, just seven of the 14 series went six games or more, compared with 10 of 14 in 2014, resulting in fewer telecasts.

Many of the games were blowouts (decided by 10 points or more), with TNT showing nine such contests in the opening round, seven in the second, and a pair during the Eastern Conference Finals, in which Cleveland swept Atlanta. TNT saw its overall playoff average rating decline to a 2.6 from a 2.9 in 2014 and total viewers drop to 4.01 million from 4.51, according to Nielsen data.

With short series in the first round, ESPN’s ratings/audience were down 16% and 14%, respectively, to 2.1/3.27 million viewers; the second round logged 10% and 9% gains, respectively, in those measures. During the Western Conference finals matchup between Golden State and Houston, ESPN registered a 4% gain to a 4.7 rating versus its coverage of the Eastern Conference final in 2014 and a 12% advance from TNT’s 4.2 with the West last year (TNT and ESPN alternate these series year to year).

All told, ESPN was flat through the conference finals with a 3.0 rating and a 4.63 million viewers, according to Nielsen.

“The first-round series ended early,” White notes. “Things started to pick up with conference semifinals and really began to heat up with the Western Conference final.”

Warriors-Cavs Rematch?
He expects the NBA to stay hot next season, which, for all intents and purposes, begins next week with the draft, the ensuing free-agency period, and summer-league action.

“The NBA has become a 365-day sport. There are lot of interesting storylines ahead for next season. Will [Lakers legend] Kobe Bryant [in what may be his last season] be healthy? We know Kevin Durant is raring to go [after an injury-depleted season for Oklahoma City]. Can Derrick Rose stay healthy, and will Chicago continue to rise under a new coach? Can Boston continue its improvement? How much further can Anthony Davis take the Pelicans after New Orleans made the playoffs? Will Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge stay in Memphis and Portland?”

Asked if ESPN/ABC would take a rematch of the 2015 Finals, White quickly replies, “Sure. We absolutely would. But looking ahead, there are no guarantees. There are a lot of strong teams.”