Chicago’s epic meltdown  in Game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals last Thursday did TNT no favors, but it set up the greatest possible title matchup for ABC.
Boasting a 77-65 lead over the Heat with 3:12 left in Thursday night’s game, the Bulls were all but assured a trip back to Miami. But as a packed United Center watched in horror, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade began raining threes over Chicago’s vaunted defense, willing their way to an 83-80 victory and a trip to the title series.
The stunning reversal robbed TNT of at least one bonus game of inventory, or roughly $9.75 million, given an estimated spot rate of $235,000. (This figure represents the end result of some rudimentary back-of-the-cocktail-napkin math and does not take into account full-series sponsorships and integrations.)
Whatever TNT may have lost in the near term, it gained an inordinate amount of promotional consideration for its upcoming original series Franklin and Bash  (June 1) and Falling Skies  (June 19). More importantly, the ratings for the series will go a long way toward allowing TNT to command greater carriage fees in upcoming negotiations with cable and satellite TV operators. (According to SNL Kagan, TNT takes in $1.03 per sub per month, putting its annual affiliate haul at around $1.25 billion. TNT boasts the second-richest sub fee; by comparison, top dog ESPN takes in $4.40 per sub per month.)
TNT averaged 10.4 million viewers with the five-game Bulls-Heat set, up 38 percent from a year ago. Going back to the beginning of the postseason, the Turner network averaged a record 5.53 million viewers over 40 games.
As both conference finals wrapped in five games, the NBA has pushed up the start of the Mavs-Heat title series to tonight (May 31). ABC’s coverage tips off in Miami at 9 p.m. EDT.
The matchup between Miami Thrice (James, Wade, and Chris Bosh) and Dallas’ deadly cast (Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, and the deepest bench in the NBA) bodes well for ABC. The last time the two franchises met in the finals (2006), ABC averaged 12.9 million total viewers over the course of six games. While that was one of the decade’s lowest-rated title series, it also was one of only four matchups that did not feature the Lakers.
Game 6 of the 2006 Mavs-Heat showdown ranks as ABC’s eighth most-watched NBA finals broadcast. According to Nielsen, some 15.7 million viewers watched the Heat nail down their first title.
Interestingly, James’ first appearance in a title series proved to be a ratings bust. In 2007, James and the Cavaliers were swept by the Spurs; the four-game blowout averaged a paltry 9.3 million viewers, making it the least-watched finals in history. That said, there's no comparison between James’ stature as a fourth-year Cav and his role now as one leg of the most celebrated trio since Boston’s Big Three.
With Los Angeles absent from the finals for the first time since 2007, ABC probably got the best matchup possible with Miami-Dallas. While local ratings may take a hit in Chicago—the Windy City is the No. 3 DMA—Miami’s hometown following is nothing to sneeze at. Heat games averaged a 4.9 rating on Sun Sports, nearly double the team’s year-ago performance.
But it’s the national stage that James aspires to, and after all the hoopla over “The Decision” —Jim Gray’s ill-considered stunt drew 9.95 million viewers on July 8, 2010—it appears that basketball fans continue to find King James a figure of fascination. TNT enjoyed stellar ratings whenever the Heat graced its air this season, and Miami was ESPN’s biggest draw over the course of the 2010-11 campaign.
It may not be Lakers-Celtics, but if the Mavs can make a fight of it, the 2011 NBA Finals may get a turnout worthy of a King.