The NBA finals' television ratings for the last eight years fall into two unmistakable categories: series with the Los Angeles Lakers, and series without them.
The four times that the Lakers — with their large market, big stars and storied tradition — reached the sport's grandest stage, the finals' average rating was never lower than a 10.2. The four times they weren't involved, the number was never above an 8.5.
But none of the Lakers' foes during that span had the fan base, history and star power to rival their own. That changes this week, as ABC gets a glamour matchup overflowing with story lines when Los Angeles faces its old nemesis, the Boston Celtics.
"Everybody understood that the Lakers and Celtics is a beautiful finals, and we're happy about that," said John Skipper, executive VP for content for ESPN/ABC. "You don't get the best matchup every year.
"This year we got it."
They didn't get it last year. The Spurs-Cavaliers series averaged a record-low 6.2 rating, which represents the percentage of homes with TVs tuned into the event. A sweep involving two teams from small markets is all but destined for dismal ratings.
The San Antonio and Cleveland markets combine for about 2.3 million households, according to Nielsen. For Los Angeles and Boston, it's about 8 million. The differences in population alone would almost certainly boost ratings even if there weren't interest in the Lakers-Celtics rivalry among casual fans.
If the series goes six or seven games, the NBA could attract its highest ratings in years. Since Michael Jordan's last title in 1998 averaged a record 18.7 on NBC, no finals has drawn a rating higher than the 12.1 earned by Lakers-76ers in 2001.
Ratings have already been up throughout the playoffs. In the conference finals, ESPN's ratings increased 47 percent from last year, TNT's rose by 20 percent, and ABC's were up 19 percent.
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