My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana.
Imagine if it was Atlanta, not LeBron James and Cleveland, facing Golden State in the NBA Finals.
Imagine if it was Anaheim, not Chicago, going up against Tampa Bay in the Stanley Cup Final.
Imagine if two different horses, not American Pharoah, had won the first two Triple Crown races going into the Belmont Stakes.
The ratings narrative would have been much different. You wouldn’t be hearing about huge numbers, some of the highest in more than a decade, from the networks.
The ratings would have been much, much lower. Instead of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman using the surging championship numbers to show the robust health of their sports, there would be stories pointing out that the declines suggested sports fans were tuning out the biggest games of the year.
Once again, the ratings show how star power is everything these days. They are a powerful reminder how the networks need the right players, teams and even horses to be performing on the biggest stages in sports.
The stars are truly aligned this year.
According to Sports Media Watch, the site that monitors ratings, Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday got off to its best start in 14 years with a 10.6 rating (17.3 million viewers) on ABC. After posting on a 12.9 overnight rating for Game 2 on Sunday, the ratings for the first two games are the highest ever for a final on ABC. Thank you, LeBron.
Game 1 of the Chicago-Tampa Bay Final was the best opener since 1997 with a 3.3 rating (5.5 million viewers).
SMW reports the overnight ratings for American Pharoah’s victory in the Belmont actually were down a tick (12.3 from 12.9) from last year when California Chrome made its bid for the Triple Crown. SMW writes: “The lower number may seem surprising, but keep in mind last year’s race likely benefited from relative novelty — it was the first Triple Crown attempt in six years and only the second in a decade.”
However, NBC still was more than pleased, as Saturday’s rating was up 167 percent from 2013, when no Triple Crown was at stake (4.6).
Let’s throw in one more big name: Serena Williams’ victory over Lucie Safarova in the French Open women’s final earned a 1.9 overnight rating on NBC Saturday morning, up 27 percent from the Maria Sharapova/Simona Halep last year (1.5).
When it comes to the NBA and NHL, ESPN/ABC and NBC should be thanking their lucky stars. Both of their sports are on remarkable runs with teams in the finals. In the case of the NBA, it comes down to one player.
James now is playing in his fifth straight NBA Final. That’s a gift from the TV god for ESPN/ABC. Much like Michael Jordan in the ‘90s, he is a ratings machine. James brings in the non-traditional viewers who tune in to check out his incredible talent. His one-man quest to win the title is must-watch TV this year.
The ratings wouldn’t be close if the star-less Atlanta Hawks had made it to the Finals. Even with an attractive Golden State team with Stephen Curry, viewers would be flipping elsewhere with a Hawks-Warriors Final.
As for the NHL, it almost had a nightmare Stanley Cup Final in Anaheim-Tampa Bay. Most people in Los Angeles don’t know that there is one hockey team in town, let alone two. The ratings would have been minuscule for that match-up.
NBC didn’t get its dream pairing in Chicago-New York Rangers, but the network isn’t complaining about having the Blackhawks in the final for the third time in six years. Not only are the Blackhawks a big national draw, my town turns into a ghost town with everyone staying home to watch the games. The huge Chicago numbers account for 20-30 percent of NBC’s overall national rating. Yes, NBC executives are big Blackhawks fans.
Surely, the networks’ star runs will end one of these days. NBC will get stuck with a Carolina-Nashville final. ABC will have to make something out of a Milwaukee-Memphis match-up for the title.
Look out below.
What happens when the stars fail to deliver? Look no further than golf where the ratings have been off significantly with Tiger Woods in an epic freefall. While the game has some new budding stars in Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, they can’t match Woods’ star power when he was at the top of his game.
The declining ratings have some people suggesting that golf’s popularity has eroded. No, that’s not the case. Rather, they show impact of Tiger’s singular feats on sports fans who tuned in just to watch him.
Indeed, the NFL is the only sport that doesn’t necessarily need star power for its biggest games. People will watch the Super Bowl regardless of who is playing. However, it didn’t hurt that Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have played in the last two Super Bowls.
Baseball clearly has been impacted the most by not having transcendent stars.Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune noted the game could use a player like Bryce Harper to emerge as a Mickey Mantle-like presence.
Sullivan writes: “The Giants and Royals may have been the two best teams of 2014, but through Game 6 of the World Series, Giants-Royals was on pace to be the least-watched Series in history. Only a Game 7 bump put it ahead of the 2012 Series, leaving ’14 second from the bottom.
“Bottom line: Neither team had any stars that casual fans cared about enough to watch, at least until Game 7.”
Bottom line: Stars rule the day in TV sports. Always have and always will. NBC and ESPN/ABC should enjoy this run while it lasts with the NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Final. They know all stars eventually fade away.