Pro basketball fans know Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and the rest of the Oklahoma City Thunder have game.
The number of casual sports fans and viewers that come to the screen and check out Team Next, root against Team Loathe from South Beach and witness an on-court confrontation that is both highly competitive and sufficiently lengthy (e.g at least six games) will ultimately determine ABC’s audience for the 2012 NBA Finals.
Basketball junkies are well aware that OKC has taken the Thunder out of recent Western Conference royalty in the form of Dirk Nowitizki and the 2011 defending champion Dallas Mavericks, Kobe and his Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio’s Big 3 Of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker — even after the Spurs won the first two games.
Next up: Miami’s trio of dollar decision-makers Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James, as the South Beach set looks for redemption after flaming out against Mark Cuban’s charges last June and to secure the initial ‘ship of their proclaimed title reign.
James, who thus far has been enjoying a very strong playoff run — leading the Heat from the brink against Boston in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals to the championship round — will certainly draw his share of viewers: those marveling at his skill and athleticism and, perhaps more importantly, the millions who want to see LeCon reprise his fourth-quarter disappearing act in The Finals.
Topped by a cable-record 13.3 million for Game 7 — James netted 31 as he and his aforementioned running mates scored all of Miami’s fourth-quarter points — and 11.07 million apiece in the fourth and sixth contests, Miami-Boston averaged 10.1 million, the second-biggest audience for a basketball series on cable, behind last year’s 10.4 million for the five-game set the Heat claimed over the Chicago Bulls.
In Miami, the seventh game dunked a 25.0 rating to stand as ESPN’s highest-rated game ever in that DMA and the third highest-rated game on cable. Fans in The Hub did their part as well, with the June 9 contest delivering a 21.7 rating, the best ever mark for an NBA contest in Boston.
For TNT, its Game 6 coverage of the Western Conference Finals delivered just under 9.5 million viewers, as local fans turned out in droves: The June 6 telecast dunked a 26.7 metered market rating in San Antonio and a 34.9 in Oklahoma City. TNT averaged 7.8 million viewers over the six-game WCF, 13% more than ESPN did with Mavs-Thunder in 2011 (under the current contract, ESPN and TNT alternate the conference finals presentation year-to-year).
Clearly, SAS and OKC fans are quite supportive of their clubs, but for those keeping score, the markets rank 36th and 44th, respectively, in the Nielsen standings, whereas Boston is seventh and Dallas fifth.
For its part, Miami ranks 16th and its six-game 2011 Finals match with the Mavs averaged a sizable 17.3 million viewers.
Can Thunder-Heat overcome OKC’s DMA deficiency? The Spurs, despite team play and chemistry that yielded four championships between 1999 and 2007, were never Nielsen-friendly, with two of their title appearances falling short of eight-figure viewing averages. In fact, the Spurs’ sweep of a more callow LeBron’s hometown Cavs averaged just 9.29 million watchers for ABC, the Nielsen nadir for The Finals.
This go-round though, there certainly is a lot of sports page, digital and social media buzz about the star power of the small forward match-up that should pit the three-time NBA MVP (including this year’s abbreviated campaign) James going man-to-man against the three-time scoring champion Durant — at least some of the time.
Should both stay out of foul trouble and Durantula and King James — not his alter-ego LeBrick — both drop 30 in a taut opener it could be the tipoff of something big with the Nielsens.
Which would be a good thing considering how the youthful Thunder — Durant and Westbrook will turn 24 on their next birthdays, while Harden will celebrate his 23rd — figure to be Team Now out West for years to come, while most of Miami’s Eastern rivals have age, injury or chemistry issues.
In fact, some are suggesting that the battle between Durant’s Thunder and James’ Heat could evolve into the modern-day version of the trio of title tilts between Magic’s Lakers-Bird’s Celtics that graced the 1980s. David Stern and John Skipper can only hope that’s the case.