When the NBA expanded into Canada in 1995 with the creation of the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver (now Memphis) Grizzlies, nobody in the league could have foreseen that it would lead to one of the biggest television ratings disasters in the history of the sport 24 years later.
During the Eastern Conference Finals, the canary in the mine started choking on the fumes of the fact that Nielsen, the U.S. arbiter of audience size for television, does not count Canadian viewership. The net result for that was a 48 percent drop in ratings compared with the 2018 matchup between Cleveland and Boston.
Well, now that the NBA Finals have come around, the canary has breathed its last and the mine has collapsed.
Thursday night’s Game 1 of the series between the Raptors and the Golden State Warriors drew a 10.1 overnight rating on ABC, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
That is the lowest preliminary rating since an 8.9 for the Los Angeles Lakers and Orlando Magic in Game 1 in 2009, and, when converted to audience size, a drop of 18 percent from Game 1 between the Warriors and the LeBron James-led Cavaliers in 2018.
The 20-year trend in NBA Finals Game 1 overnight ratings: pic.twitter.com/EA3Xc1wBfb
— Sports Media Watch (@paulsen_smw) May 31, 2019
Granted, that 18 percent decline doesn’t take into account Canadian viewers, and there are, by all accounts, quite a lot of them in Toronto and across that country.
The Toronto Star reported that Game 6, when the Raptors closed out the Milwaukee Bucks, peaked at 5.3 million viewers on Canada’s Sportsnet and averaged over 3 million viewers — the NBA even outdrew the NHL on Canadian TV.
But this does not fundamentally change the fact that ESPN and TNT, which aired the NBA Finals and the Eastern Conference Finals this spring, can’t be happy about losing nearly a fifth of their audience after paying the NBA a king’s ransom in rights fees.
The NBA already was dealing with the marketability problem of losing James as a ratings draw.
Under those circumstances, and assuming that the Canadian audience numbers are as strong in the Finals as they were in the Bucks series, the NBA would seem to be in better shape now than it was 20 years ago.
But ESPN and TNT did not pay megabucks for viewers who don’t count.
Going head to head with the Spelling Bee is tough.
— Loren Patterson (@THE_DEAL_) May 31, 2019
If Kawhi Leonard stays in Toronto after this season, if the Raptors become the next Warriors and reel off a string of Finals appearances, and if the TV ratings continue to see a fifth of the audience lost to the vortex of ratings algorithms, the decision to put a team in Canada might prove the most costly decision the NBA ever made.
And if U.S. television networks use those ratings to negotiate a drop in rights fees, that could drive the NBA’s salary cap down, with massive effects on labor relations as players and owners fight over who has to sacrifice more in that new economic reality.
Which, in turn, could mean a protracted lockout, a strike, maybe even a lost season, all because a Canadian basketball team with a hyperactive rapper bouncing around the sidelines soaked up the local-ratings boost and killed the golden goose.
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