NBA Finals Game 1 featuring Suns-Bucks attracts 8.5 million viewers, up 13% from last year

Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns brings the ball up court against the Milwaukee Bucks during the second half in Game One of the NBA Finals at Phoenix Suns Arena on July 06, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Chris Coduto | Getty Images

The National Basketball Association rebounded from a dreadful 2020 NBA Finals event, attracting more than 8 million viewers on ABC for Game 1 of its championship series between the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks.

Total viewers for the game averaged 8.5 million, up 13% from Game 1 of the 2020 NBA Finals. Due to the pandemic, that series was played last October; it featured the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat. The 2020 Game 1 was the lowest viewed since 1994 when the O.J. Simpson car chase interrupted that broadcast.

The July 6 Suns-Bucks contest peaked at 9.9 million viewers in the 11 p.m. ET.

The NBA said the opener “also set 20-year ratings records in the Phoenix and Milwaukee markets. The broadcast drew a 23.9 rating in the Milwaukee market, the best since 2001, and a 23.7 rating in the Phoenix market, the best since 2000.”

The Suns lead the 2021 series after a 118-105 victory, setting up a pivotal Game 2 on Thursday, as the Bucks look to avoid a two-game hole. It’s the first time both franchises are appearing in the Finals in decades, with the Bucks last playing in 1974 and the Suns in 1993.

International viewership could take a hit as the league works to repair its relationship with China. The country is the NBA’s top market outside the U.S. but still doesn’t show games on state-run CCTV after a 2019 incident featuring Philadelphia 76ers executive Daryl Morey. The NBA Finals are streamed throughout China by media partner Tencent.

In league circles, the NBA isn’t too concerned about its low Finals viewership over the last two cycles. Last October, NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum told CNBC viewership for the 2019-20 season was a “complete anomaly” as the pandemic, and social unrest caused disruptions. This year, the event is still off schedule, and league officials suggest July has the lowest PUT (people using televisions) levels of any month of the year.

On Tuesday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the league will return to a normal schedule next season, which means the Finals will be held in June as usual. The NBA Finals was last played during the month of June in 2019 when the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors attracted 13.3 million viewers for Game 1 of the series.

The latest viewership metric comes after the NBA enjoyed a successful postseason run, which featured multiple Game 7s. The Brooklyn Nets vs. Bucks Game 7 attracted 6.9 million viewers and the final game between the Atlanta Hawks vs. the Philadelphia 76ers had 6.2 million viewers.

The NBA also attracted 5.6 million viewers for its play-in game between NBA’s biggest superstars in LeBron James and Steph Curry. 

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