“It’s hard to say if the NBA is hurt by the influx of younger players, but it’s definitely impacted the league.”
By Alex P. Vidal
IT was like watching John and Marsha on TV without the late legendary Dolphy.
Or waiting for a bombshell speech in the Senate floor without the late maverick Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago.
Most LeBron James fans weren’t prepared to watch the NBA Finals without the superstar from the league’s marquee event for the first time in almost a decade.
Fans easily noticed James’ absence as they used to seeing him play in the finals, when Game 1 of the NBA Finals tipped off in Toronto Thursday, May 30.
Although James’ absence may have gone unnoticed in Scotiabank Arena as the Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Raptors fired off the Game 1, probably not in the big screen and the ball club’s executive offices.
After appearing in eight consecutive Finals since 2010, James became a spectator for the first time; he missed the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
The door in the Eastern Conference opened for a different team to advance starting when James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Los Angeles Lakers last summer. The Raptors capitalized it, earning their first trip to the Finals in their 24-year existence.
Josh Peter and Jeff Zillgitt of USA TODAY observed that Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry couldn’t even say James’ name during Tuesday’s NBA Finals media day.
“I’ve run into one guy for a while. We were given the opportunity–he left–and we beat a really good team in Milwaukee.”
The Warriors faced James four consecutive times in the Finals, losing to the Cavaliers in 2016.
“It’s weird not playing against him,” Warriors guard Shaun Livingston said. “For so long, he was the hurdle we had to get over. It’s weird being somewhere else other than Cleveland in the Finals.”
It’s a good bet the NBA is trying to assess how James’ absence will impact TV ratings –which have dipped during this year’s playoffs–and how his potentially extended absence from the Finals has reshaped the narrative.
Peter and Zillgitt observed that fans have watched as other players have made headlines.
“I haven’t thought about it at all to be honest with you,” Charles Barkley, an analyst for TNT, told USA TODAY Sports before Game 1. “No disrespect to LeBron. Everybody knows he’s a great player.
“(But) Kawhi Leonard and Steph Curry, their emergence, that to me says it all. Go back to the beginning of the playoffs. It started with Giannis (Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks), the second round had Kawhi and then you thought Portland had a chance to get to the Finals when Kevin Durant gets hurt. Steph goes crazy.
“There have been some amazing story lines, and that’s all I’ve been thinking about.”
It was learned that viewership was down for playoffs.
The NBA is reportedly armed with data showing the hockey-mad country actually also cares about basketball.
According to Canada TV ratings supplied by Numeris:
–More than one-third of TV viewers in Canada watched Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Raptors and Bucks.
–The 2018-19 NBA season was the most-watched NBA regular season in Canada, with viewership up 29% year-over-year across Sportsnet and TSN.
–Game 1 of the NBA Finals was the most-watched NBA game ever in Canada with a total audience of 3.5 million viewers across three networks, the NBA announced Friday evening.
It was learned further that Game 1 of the 2019 NBA Finals between the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors delivered a combined average audience of 3.5 million viewers across simulcast coverage on Sportsnet National+, SportsnetOne+ and RDS+, making it the most-watched NBA game ever in Canada.
But the TV audience so far in the playoffs on ESPN, TNT and NBA TV has averaged 3.95 million viewers, a 16% dip from 2018 over the same period, according to Nielsen.
Thursday’s Game 1 had an overnight rating of 10.1, making it the lowest-rated Finals opener since 2009 and down 18% from the first game of last year’s final. The average audience estimate for the broadcast on ABC is expected to be released later Friday.
The drop, however, can’t all be attributed to James. The conference finals had other factors.
–The Raptors’ home market isn’t counted since the viewership totals don’t include Canada. Toronto’s opponent, the Bucks, are based in the 36th-largest media market, according to Nielsen.
The 2018 Eastern Conference finals featured Boston (No. 9 media market) and James-led Cleveland (No. 19), a series that averaged 8.4 million viewers on ESPN. TNT–which broadcast this year’s Eastern Conference finals and had the highest-rated night on cable 19 times since the start of the playoffs–averaged 5.7 million viewers.
–The Western Conference finals between the Warriors and Trail Blazers was a sweep, so hardly the compelling seven-game series of 2018 between the Warriors and Rockets. Last year’s finals averaged 9.4 million viewers on TNT compared to an average of 7.7 million viewers on ESPN this year.
“We’re very happy with where we are,’’ NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told WFAN radio host Mike Francesa this week. “We miss LeBron. The good news is he’s not gone. He had an (groin) injury, the team struggled and my sense is he’ll be back in top form next season.’’
That may be true, according to Peter and Zillgitt, but there’s no evidence LeBron and the Lakers will reach the Finals anytime soon.
And so the NBA is waiting to measure the impact of a new and indefinite reality–the Finals without LeBron.
(The author, who is now based in New York City, used to be the editor of two local dailies in Iloilo)