The overall numbers are down slightly from last year heading into Friday night’s Game 4 – the potential clincher for Golden State – but as far as the television business is concerned, everything is fine, with headlines such as “NBA Finals Hold Steady in Game 3” and “NBA Finals: ABC will miss big ratings,” meaning once the series is over.
It makes sense. Sports fans might be somewhat bored of this matchup, and it’s reasonable to wish that LeBron James had enough of a supporting cast to make it a competitive series rather than a question of whether the best basketball player we’ve ever seen can pretty much singlehandedly win a game against one of the best teams we’ve ever seen, but there also is value in the recurring theme.
Why wouldn’t it work as an entertainment product? That’s what television is about, after all, and it’s not like people stopped watching “Seinfeld” in season four because they’d grown sick of the same characters being on the show all the time. That was the season of the “show about nothing” that was about the show about nothing, and included such episodes as “The Contest,” “The Junior Mint,” and “The J.R. Smith Brainfart That Ruined LeBron Putting Up 51-8-8 On The Warriors, How The Hell Does That Even Happen In A Professional Game?” Okay, two of those.
Had the Cavaliers been able to win Game 1 or Game 3, both of which were within reach, if not within their grasp, this would be a totally different series, headed for ratings gold in the late stages, where networks and leagues really make their money. Looking at either a sweep or a gentleman’s sweep, it’s a lot different, but it’s important not to conflate the quality of the series with the quality of the games played, because even though Game 2 wound up involving quite a bit of garbahj time, it got very interesting in the third quarter before the Warriors eventually pulled away.
If James re-signs in Cleveland this summer, and we wind up getting a fifth straight June of Cavs-Warriors, that’s still not bad, because the options again are either James vs. Juggernaut, or a team with an upgraded supporting cast that makes it an actual series. Either way, it makes for compelling television, and that’s just for one scenario that doesn’t even appear likely. Otherwise, next year’s NBA Finals will have a different feel to it, possibly in the form of James and a new team against Golden State, which would be its own compelling drama in need of very little effort by marketers to draw in viewers.
This is the NBA’s appeal to a casual viewer: when it comes to the Finals, you’re going to know these guys. The NFL in the Brady/Manning/Roethlisberger era has had pretty much the same deal with the Super Bowl, heightening the appeal of an event that already is a bonanza for people who only watch football that one night of the year. Baseball and hockey are nowhere near as predictable, but both do tend to thrive when there are defined and easy-to-follow stories for the championship round, whether it’s the Astros’ first title last fall, after a hurricane ravaged their city, or the Capitals finally winning the Stanley Cup on Thursday night over the expansion Golden Knights.
It would be better as a sports fan if the result of this year’s NBA Finals had been in doubt, but that’s not the television story. The upside of that is, even in a series that is pretty well decided, the viewers remain, and there’s even reason to watch Game 4 as something more than just a coronation, because so long as James is playing at the level he has this spring, to see whether he really can bring this completely overmatched team to so much as one win is the stuff of must-see TV.