How NBA Finals Ratings (Sort of) Compensate for ABC's Lack of Football

Cavs Warriors Finals - H 2015
AP Images

Cavs Warriors Finals - H 2015

ABC might not often get the chance to air sports — but on the rare occasion it boasts an athletic event, at least it's a huge one.

And the current NBA Finals are sweeter than usual. Five games in, the battle between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors is averaging 25 percent more viewers than the 2014 Finals. That average audience of 19.2 million, which stands to grow considerably should the Cavaliers tie the series on Tuesday night and prompt a Game 7, already stands as the highest since ABC took broadcast rights to the championship from NBC back in 2003. (Overnights are also the best since Michael Jordan's last championship appearance in 1998.)

After just five nights, the NBA Finals have also averaged a 7.4 rating among adults 18-49, up 21 percent from last year. That number is outpacing CBS' fall run of Thursday Night Football (5.9 adults rating) over nearly as many games — a score it shared with the NFL Network, mind you — and is essentially tied with the 14-week run of NBC's Sunday Night Football.

In season or out, that means a lot to a network that hasn't aired a NFL game since the 2006 Super Bowl. The Disney-owned network last boasted regular NFL coverage of its own during the 2005 season, before corporate sibling ESPN took the rights to Monday Night Football. ABC will get a one-off return to America's most watched sport in the coming season, with ESPN recently announcing shared coverage of its January wild-card game.

As for the NBA, the uptick from 2014 can be chalked up to several variables — Lebron James' return to Cleveland and the Warriors' surprising rise to the top of the Western Conference being the most noteworthy. And it doesn't hurt that the most recent matchup, between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs, was the second in as many years, or that the San Francisco-Oakland market is the sixth biggest in the country.

ABC is again using the Finals as a platform for No. 2 late-night talker Jimmy Kimmel, and the lifts have helped his 11:35 weeknight telecast and the primetime specials airing prior to the games. The most recent Jimmy Kimmel Live: Game Night brought the special its best ratings since its 2008 start with 4.4 million viewers and a 1.4 in the key demo.

The real feat will be if the network can parlay basketball's promotional platform into continued summer success. It is aggressively marketing the Sunday launch of Celebrity Family Feud, hosted by Steve Harvey, and its resurrection of BattleBots. And the Big Four could use a reality hit. Of the offseason's many new offerings thus far (ABC's 500 Questions, Fox's Bullseye and Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, CBS' The Briefcase and NBC's The Island and I Can Do That), only the series with a big lead-in (NBC's America's Got Talent and American Ninja Warrior) have really clicked.

But the more pressing question is whether or not the Warriors and Cavaliers, currently 3-2 going into tonight's game, can make it to a Game 7. Taking the Finals all the way (most recently in 2010 and 2013) routinely brings crowds between 25 and 30 million to the telecast. And those are for lesser-watched Finals. Current momentum would push a hypothetical seventh game into the proverbial stratosphere.

The 2015 NBA Finals Thus Far (Compared to 2014)

Game 1: 17.8 million viewers (up 19 percent)
Game 2 19.2 million viewers (up 26 percent)
Game 3 18.8 million viewers (up 27 percent)
Game 4: 19.8 million viewers (up 32 percent)
Game 5: 20.5 million viewers (up 15 percent)