The NBA is a star-driven league in all regards. Nobody can argue that. As much fun as nerds like me have breaking down the play of an unheralded bench asset or the various zone/man defenses Nick Nurse throws at opponents on any given possession, it's the big names that drive the conversation and interest for the common fan. It's those same big names that, more often than not, take up the biggest light on the biggest stage as the playoffs chug along.
Some might argue that's a detriment for casual fans. Arguing about the same players and teams on debate shows with conversations that circle similar topics about big-market squads can be tiring for even diehard NBA followers. That is part of a larger conversation about the overall dip in NBA ratings over the last five years. It's impossible to pinpoint any one aspect as the biggest contributing factor. But last night's Los Angeles Lakers-Houston Rockets playoff game hammered home one thing that we already knew but bears repeating: LeBron James is a ratings monster unparalleled in basketball.
An average of 5.4 million people watched the Lakers take on the Rockets in Game 3 of their second-round playoff series last night. That number peaked at seven million as the most-watched game of the restart, surpassing the Jazz-Nuggets Game 7.
The average of 3.35 million viewers Utah and Denver drew was considered a win. Lakers-Rockets averaged two million more viewers. It was the most-watched television program by men in the 18-49 demographic since the final episode of The Last Dance, and the most-watched program by everyone aged 18-49 since The Masked Singer's season finale on May 20. Aside from the fact that The Masked Singer is apparently a cultural phenomenon I'm missing out on, the big takeaway is that LeBron supersedes all narratives about why the ratings might be falling.
Last year's NBA Finals were down in terms of viewership, notching 15.1 million viewers on average in the United States over the six-game series. A variety of factors contributed to that. The Raptors play in Canada and were not the most entertaining or popular team and the Warriors dealt with numerous injuries, most importantly to Kevin Durant, one of the aforementioned big names that people tune in to see. But there was also no LeBron James there to draw casual viewers.
LeBron was in nearly every NBA Finals this decade. He missed the 2010 Finals, which were still a big ratings win because it was the Celtics vs. the Lakers, two huge market teams with big names and a long history. Every Finals LeBron appeared in after that averaged north of an average 15.5 million viewers per game with the exception of the 2014 Finals rematch against the San Antonio Spurs. Even the 2018 Finals, a clean sweep of LeBron's Cavaliers at the hands of the powerhouse Warriors, averaged north of 17 million viewers per game.
NBA ratings have undeniably declined over the last decade. This season in particular is strange in ways nobody can comprehend, and we won't understand how the global pandemic impacted the viewing of sports until the bubble is long in the rearview. But one constant has remained: when LeBron James is involved, people will watch. Even if it's a non-deciding game of a second-round playoff series on a Tuesday night.