ABC says it is very well sold for the NBA Finals series between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, which begins Thursday night. The first four games are sold out and a couple of units are left for a potential Game 5.
Unlike the NHL Stanley Cup Final, which for the first time since 2011 does not have a major market team in the finals and is struggling with ratings through the first two games, the NBA Finals is a rematch of last year's finals that set records for ABC. Last year's NBA championship series on ABC was the most-watched and highest-rated NBA Finals ever on ABC, averaging 19.9 million with an 11.6 U.S. household rating over the six games. And last month's conference finals on TNT and ESPN drew very robust crowds, especially the Warriors' Game 7 win over Oklahoma City.
Commercial time for the Finals is pricey, since rates are usually based on ratings from the season before, but that hasn't scared marketers away.
"Demand has been strong and interest among marketers has been high," said Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN/ABC Sports global marketing and sales. "We are hoping for a long series and I'm rooting for my favorite team - Nielsen."
Erhardt is also hoping for a close opening game Thursday that he believes will draw even more fans into the viewership fold for Game 2 on Sunday. "We're going into this series with great optimism," he said. "A rematch of Golden State with Steph Curry and Cleveland with LeBron James is a heck of a story, and if the series can go six or seven games, we will all be giving each other high fives at ABC and ESPN."
The prior playoff telecasts have included some non-traditional NBA advertisers like Airbnb, Uber and Expedia, marketers who will also be in the Finals telecasts. And in addition to running traditional 30s in the game telecasts, marketers such as Verizon, Kia, State Farm, MillerCoors and Burger King will have brand integrations.
American Express, an official NBA sponsor, will for the first time be the title sponsor of the NBA Finals halftime show, titled The American Express Halftime Report. Sony Pictures has a partnership with the NBA for the Finals and will be ABC's "movie studio partner."
Samsung returns for a co-branded position they have run for the past several playoff finals with pieces live in NBA Countdown and the first position leading into the third quarter.
Nissan returns to execute "Tonight's Excitement," which is an integration that utilizes ESPN's slow motion I-Movix camera that lives behind the backboard and will sponsor that feature. And Intel's "Intel 360 Experience," which began running during the Conference finals on ESPN and Turner, will continue on ABC during the Finals. That feature takes a 360-degree look at play on the court.
ABC cable sibling ESPN televised this year's Eastern Conference finals between the Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, which averaged just 5.6 million viewers for the six game series. It was the lowest rated Conference Finals series since 2013 when the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Memphis Grizzlies, but much of the lack of viewership can be attributed to Toronto being an outside the U.S. market.
The NBA Western Conference finals on TNT between the Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder, on the other hand, averaged 9.9 million viewers, with Game 7 drawing 15.9 million viewers, the most-watched program in TNT history.
So Erhardt's expectations for a strong ratings showing for the series seem likely to be met. Just in case, audience deficiency units have been held back for potential ratings shortfalls. But unless the network sold at guarantees much higher than last year's record numbers, it's more likely that ABC will be able to put those units back up for sale during the series.