Postseason (Viewer) Appreciation

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On the eve of the Open at Bethpage and with Wimbledon about to serve up its fortnight, it’s time for one last look at the NHL and NBA playoffs, two of the most exciting postseasons in recent memory.

For the NHL, there were six series that went the distance, including a pair of decisive contests that felled the Big Apple teams — the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers - on the same night. While perhaps a Nielsen detriment, the results did lead to the Pittsburgh Penguins overcoming Alexander “The Great” Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals in the decider at the Verizon Center during his marquee matchup with Sid “The Kid” Crosby.

National cable carrier Versus scored along the way, notching the puck sport’s best second- and third- round ratings and viewer numbers in a decade.

With Versus airing Games 3 and 4 of the first Stanley Cup Final rematch since the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers faced off in 1983-84, the network netted its best-ever telecasts. Indeed, Game 4 was seen by some 3.45 million viewers, a figure NBC more than doubled with its June 12 Game 7 broadcast, when the Penguins prevailed on the road against the defending champion Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena.

NBC scored a 4.3 national rating and almost 8.08 million viewers, the best-rated Stanley Cup Final series concluder since the Devils-Anaheim Ducks in 2003 and the most-viewed NHL game in 36 years!

All told, NBC averaged a 3.1 rating and 5.61 million viewers for its five telecasts of the Penguins-Red Wings series, down from a 3.2, but ahead of the 5.41 million watchers for four telecasts with the 2008 Stanley Cup Final.

One could imagine what the numbers could have been if Conan’s coming out party didn’t force a pair of NBC’s games to air on Saturday nights and the scheduling didn’t pit three of the Stanley Cup cappers against NBA playoffs and Finals action. [Versus’ Game 4 season finale faced the tip-off of the Los Angeles Lakers-Orlando Magic Finals series. For its part, NBC’s May 30 opener went head-to-head with the night the Magic made the LeBrons disappear in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, while the penultimate NHL contest threw down versus Game 3 of The Finals.]

On David Stern’s side of the ledger, there were a quartet of series that went the distance, highlighted by one of the best playoff matches ever: the defending champion Boston Celtics outlasting the Chicago Bulls in a fray that saw two games (1 and 5) go into OT, a third go to a pair of extra sessions (Game 4) and one showcase an additional three five-minute stanzas (Game 6).

Conversely, the seven-game Atlanta Hawks-Miami Heat match will quickly fade from memory for an equal number of one-sided affairs.

The Finalists also had to claw their way out of decisive contests along the way. Kobe’s Lakers had to do far too much work to dispatch the depleted Houston Rockets in the second round, while the Magic dethroned the Boston in Beantown in the Eastern Conference finals, marking the first time the Cs had lost a seven-game series in 32 tries in which they led 3-2.

TNT and ESPN were the happy beneficiaries of the competitive playoff series, which also included the Lakers fighting tooth and nail with the Denver Nuggets for four contests before putting Chauncey and Melo away in Games 5 and 6 of the Western Conference finals. The worldwide leader dunked its six most-watched basketball games in its history, topped by Game 4 of Lakers-Nuggets, which garnered 9.8 million on May 25.

Overall, the drama network’s “40 Games in 40 Nights” played big, as TNT scored its highest marks in 25 years of playoff coverage, including cable’s most-watched hoops telecast, Orlando’s OT win in Game 4 against Cleveland averaged 10.1 million on May 26.

While Nike, Vitamin Water and much of America were unhappy that the would-be King’s confrontation with the Black Mamba didn’t play out on court, the Nielsens scored well for ABC nonetheless: its five Finals telecasts averaged an 8.4 national rating, equating to 9.6 million households and 14.3 million viewers.

That was down from a 9.3, 10.5 million households and 14.9 million watchers for the 2008 renewal of the league’s top rivalry, Boston-LA, over six games. Hey, if Stan Van Gundy didn’t elect to play Jameer Nelson so much, or the injured point guard closed out on Derek Fisher in Game 4….never mind.

Still, Magic-Lakers easily surpassed the all-time NBA Finals lows generated by San Antonio’s sweep of Cleveland in 2007 (6.2, 6.9 million households and 9.29 million) and pushed well past the 2006 (six games of Miami-Dallas yielded an 8.5, 9.33 million households, 12.9 million watchers), 2005 (seven games of Spurs-Detroit delivered an 8.2, 8.95 million homes, 12.5 million viewers) and 2002 (six games of Spurs-New Jersey Nets produced a 6.5, 6.96 million homes, 9.9 million watchers) championship rounds.

Next year, the Most Valuable Puppets, LeBron-Kobe could match up in something other than a mannequin manner, especially if the Big Cactus, aka as the Big Tweet, joins The Chosen One in Cleveland.

Then, the Nielsens could appreciate and approximate the 17.9 million who witnessed Shaq-Kobe fall to Larry Brown’s Pistons in five games back in the 2004 Finals.

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