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Kentucky a Bigger TV Draw Than the NBA - Including LeBron - and It's Not Close

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The 24-0 Kentucky Wildcats are closing in on history, and in the process, have become the biggest basketball TV draw – yes, bigger than LeBron James.

The Wildcats are poised to become the 1st men’s basketball team since the 1975-76 Indiana Hooisers to go undefeated and win a National Championship. They’ll probably be double-digit favorites to win the rest of their regular season games (maybe 9.5 at pesky Georgia), and the SEC has been so bad, Kentucky is expected to waltz through the SEC tournament and enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated.

Basketball fans have taken notice: Kentucky’s game against LSU Tuesday – the Wildcats briefly led by 13 in the second half, but held on to win by one – drew 2.4 million viewers on ESPN according to Sports TV Ratings. And that’s not even the biggest number Kentucky has pulled this season: When Kentucky beat unranked Florida last Saturday, 3.2 million people watched.

A night later, LeBron vs. his former team, Miami, only drew a TV audience of 1.59 million. The ESPN nightcap Wednesday between the Rockets and Clippers – two playoff teams with popular stars in James Harden and Chris Paul – drew 1.4 million viewers.

The NBA is having a transitional season, with the Hawks and Warriors possessing the best records, the Celtics, Knicks and Lakers lottery-bound, and in a star-driven league, that’s going to result in lower TV ratings. Last week, the Cavs/Clippers game on TNT brought in just 1.8 million viewers. According to figures provided by Sports TV Ratings, only three NBA games on cable* this season have reeled in more viewers than Kentucky/Florida:

1) Bulls/Lakers on Christmas night (4.04 million on ESPN)
2) Knicks/Cavs on Opening Night, LeBron’s 1st game back (4.02 on TNT)
3) Cavs/Bulls on Halloween, LeBron’s 2nd game back (3.87 on ESPN)

[Aside: If you want to dream about Duke and Kentucky in the NCAA Championship, like I’ve been doing, consider this: Two Saturdays ago, Duke vs. UVA – a battle of top 10 teams – had 3.48 million viewers. Here’s what’s surprising, despite that being on a Saturday night, the worst night of the week for TV: the Clippers and Spurs game followed, but pulled in less than half that figure (1.68 million viewers). Duke vs. Kentucky is what college hoops needs. The NCAA Tournament committee should load up on the other two brackets and pave the way for this to happen.]

Yes, there’s certainly two aspects to Kentucky’s run that hooks the casual fan: Having three Top 10 picks in the 2015 draft and everyone waiting for them to lose. Still, there’s a surprising gap between how many people are watching Kentucky vs. the NBA.

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* Numbers from college and pro games on network TV not available.