The Los Angeles Lakers and the Orlando Magic are currently battling it out on the court for pro basketball supremacy.
But off the court, the real winners of the 2009 National Basketball Association postseason have already been crowned: it's the cable industry — in particular, ESPN and TNT.
The two networks rode the on-air presence and popularity of NBA royalty LeBron James and Kobe Bryant — as well as some very well-played and exciting playoff series — to ratings nirvana throughout their respective 40-plus days of NBA playoffs coverage.
For the past two weeks, those networks kept passing one another the crown for the most-watched NBA cable telecast of all time, as TNT's Cleveland Cavaliers-Orlando Magic Eastern Conference finals and ESPN's Los Angles Lakers-Denver Nuggets Western Conference coverage drew to a conclusion late last month. (TNT gets to put it in their trophy case after drawing 10.1 million watchers to its May 26 Orlando Magic-Cleveland Cavaliers Game 4 telecast, besting the 9.8 million ESPN drew for its May 25 Game 4 Lakers-Nuggets game.)
Even when broadcast network ABC tried to grab a little ratings sunshine during the league's playoff run with a handful of telecasts, it couldn't match up viewer for viewer with cable's best performances. In its most-watched telecast of the playoffs on May 23, ABC drew 8.7 million viewers for Game 3 of the Lakers-Nuggets series.
Overall, TNT averaged a network record 4.7 million total viewers for its 43-game NBA Playoffs coverage, while ESPN dunked its own NBA viewership record during the playoffs, averaging 4.8 million viewers. Six of ESPN's 2009 NBA telecasts rank as the most watched basketball games ever on the network, college or pro.
Whether ABC can build on that momentum for its Disney World vs. Disneyland NBA Finals coverage is still unclear. While the Lakers-Magic series offers some interesting player matchups and features such marquee players as Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant, it isn't the Kobe-LeBron finals that the network suits were salivating over.
The only remnants left in the NBA Finals of ABC's fantasy matchup are those silly Nike-produced Bryant-James puppet caricature commercials. Overnight ratings for ABC's telecasts were down double digits from the first game of last year's Boston Celtics-Lakers final.
The series got off to an ominous start for the network as the Lakers blew out the Magic in game one of the series Friday night.
But that's ABC's scenario to play out. For now, ESPN and TNT are the ones cutting down the nets in celebration of their NBA ratings championship.