The Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks are clashing on the biggest stage in basketball. With the grand event that is the NBA Finals comes with everyone's favorite sports-adjacent discussion: Ratings! This year's iteration promised to be particularly contentious as the NBA and media analyzes the first Finals without the household name/big market combination that has driven great viewership numbers over the last decade (see: LeBron James in Miami, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant in Golden State, et al).
Today, folks, we got the numbers from Game 1 of these Finals. They were, unsurprisingly, up from 2020, when the Lakers/Heat matchup was going up against the unholy combination of the NFL, a presidential election cycle, and the pandemic viewership decline trend. The numbers were (also unsurprisingly) down from 2019, the most recent "normal" year we have to compare.
I can't imagine anyone at the league offices is sounding the klaxon horn over that 35 percent dip from the 2019 showdown, even with the note Sportico's Anthony Crupi adds about the Toronto numbers' absence from Nielsen ratings. The Dubs/Raptors series that year featured the three biggest non-LeBron names in basketball, and this year's series does not. All the league probably cared about was getting up over the low numbers from the strange and bizarre 2020 affair, which it accomplished.
This is pretty much what everyone expected. Phoenix and Milwaukee are not huge markets, even if their fanbases are loyal and tuning in to every second of every game. This is the first Finals appearance this century for both squads, meaning casual fans who only tune in for big games are not yet familiar with the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo or Devin Booker.
The biggest note may be that we are not really back to what we would consider to be the standard of normalcy we had in 2019. We aren't so far removed from the worst of the pandemic that anyone has any real understanding of how viewership habits during those times may change in regards to sports going forward. By the standards of pre-2020, this are bad ratings. By the standard of post-2020? Who the hell knows.
The big number at the end of the series will be the most telling. More viewers will presumably tune in when the series moves back to Milwaukee and the start time is moved up to 8 p.m. ET instead of the Phoenix 9 p.m. ET tip-off (which I use loosely, since the actual tip often doesn't come for at least 15 minutes after the listed start time). Giannis will round into form and make the games closer and more exciting. If these Finals go the distance and play six or seven games, viewership will spike because sports fans like good games, even if LeBron or Kawhi or KD aren't there.
These early numbers aren't great by the standards of two years ago. But a whole lot has changed in those 24 months. For how things are today, 8.56 million viewers in the first game of a Milwaukee-Phoenix Finals isn't too bad at all.