Ratings predictions for a holiday weekend of Game 7s and auto racing. How will Game 7 of Celtics-Heat and Rangers-Hurricanes fare?
Can Celtics-Heat measure up to previous conference final Game 7s?
There are Game 7s and then there are conference final (or LCS) Game 7s, typically the most-watched games of any postseason outside of the actual championship series. Outside of the NBA Finals, the four largest NBA audiences in the past 20 seasons — and five of the top seven — have been conference final Game 7s. There have been just ten total over the past 25 years, all-but-one averaging at least 11 million viewers (Pistons-Heat in 2005 had just 9.15 million).
Beyond the obvious stakes, these Game 7s have largely featured all-time great stars. Of the ten in the past quarter-century, eight have featured James, Curry, Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan — arguably (along with Magic Johnson and Larry Birdthe biggest individual draws in the history of the NBA.
There are no such draws in this year’s Celtics-Heat series, a matchup that through five games lacked any kind of drama. Game 6 was the first of the series in which neither team led by as many as 20 points. There are stars, but one would have to be a sports fan to know them. The kind of stars that really move the needle are the ones known by the most casual ‘casuals’ — not people who only watch nationally televised games, but people who might only watch one or two games a year (if even that). For as great as they are, Jayson Tatum and Jimmy Butler are not close to that level, at least not yet.
The stakes alone should make Celtics-Heat easily the most-watched game of this year’s playoffs. If Pistons-Heat could average 9.1 million in 2005 — arguably the low point of the modern NBA on television — Celtics-Heat should have no trouble getting into the ten million range. After two years in which NBA Finals games struggled to get past the ten million mark, that is no small feat.
With that said, do not expect viewership to match the previous conference final Game 7s. Four years ago, the NBA was fortunate to have game sevens in both conference finals, one featuring Curry and the other James. The former averaged 14.9 million and the latter 13.6 million, the second and third-largest NBA audiences in cable history. The record was set two years earlier by Thunder-Warriors Game 7, which averaged 16.0 million. Even in the out-of-home era, Sunday’s Celtics-Heat Game 7 is unlikely to reach such heights.
Few would have expected Miami to pull out the Game 6 victory on Friday night, so just getting to an unexpected Game 7 is a win for the league. No viewership records will be set on Sunday, but even a relatively low Game 7 figure would look strong in the context of the past two years (and a somewhat soft conference final round).
NBA Eastern Conference Finals Game 7: Heat-Celtics (8:40p Sun ESPN). Prediction: 5.7, 10.93M viewers.
Will Rangers-Hurricanes Game 7 reach record territory?
ESPN has back-to-back nights of Game 7s over the Memorial Day weekend, with Rangers-Hurricanes taking center stage on Monday night. Not all Game 7s are made equally. A seventh game between Calgary and Edmonton would have been nice and probably would have drawn fairly well. A seventh game involving New York has the potential to hit heights rarely seen for an NHL game on cable.
Excluding the Stanley Cup Final, only three NHL games on cable topped the three million viewer mark during the 15-year NBCSN era. Two were conference final Game 7s (2014 Kings-Blackhawks: 4.14M; 2015 Lightning-Rangers: 3.29M) and the other was Red Wings-Blackhawks in the semifinals of 2013 (3.35M). There are some similarities between that 2013 postseason and the current version, mainly the late start in comparison to the NBA.
For years, the Stanley Cup Playoffs began prior to its NBA counterpart, meaning that the biggest games of the postseason were occurring on nights occupied by NBA doubleheaders. This year, as in 2013, is an exception. The NHL playoffs did not start until the NBA was already in the second round. As a result, the biggest games of the NHL season are occurring just as the NBA is entering the point of its postseason where games are few and far between. Just as in 2013, a quick end to the NBA’s Western Conference Finals means the NHL’s Game 7 has sports television to itself.
Can viewership reach the 2013 level of 3.35 million? Given the lack of competition and the out-of-home factor, it would seem fairly likely. It remains to be seen just how potent a factor out-of-home viewing will be on Memorial Day. Given the impact it had on Easter viewing, four million may not be out of the question.
NHL Eastern Conference semifinal Game 7: Rangers-Hurricanes (8:00p Mon ESPN). Prediction: 1.7, 3.59M.
How will F1, IndyCar and NASCAR rank on racing’s biggest day?
Entering what is typically the biggest weekend of the year for motorsports on US television, it is worth observing the state of play. Formula 1 is the belle of the sports media ball, owing to its surging ratings on ESPN, its much-hyped Netflix documentary series and its successful debut of the Miami Grand Prix. Not since NASCAR in the mid-2000s has a racing series been the subject of so many trend pieces. NASCAR still trounces F1 in overall viewership (and IndyCar may be ahead as well, owing to its ramped-up broadcast television presence), but F1 has surpassed NASCAR in the key demographics of adults 18-49 and 18-34 multiple times this season.
For as much as F1 has grown in recent years, Memorial Day weekend figures to offer somewhat of a reality check. NASCAR and IndyCar may seem ‘old hat’ by comparison, but both series have something F1 does not: a true ‘event’ that captures the attention of the casual casuals who never watch another race. F1 has all the buzz and all of the momentum, but it does not have a Daytona 500 — or an Indy 500.
Last year’s Indy 500 averaged 5.55 million viewers (pending revision), the highest since 2016 and the most-watched auto race of the year — and that was despite airing directly opposite an NBA playoff game involving LeBron James. There is no such competition this year, and in the era of out-of-home viewing a traditional event on the Sunday of a holiday weekend seems primed for growth.
The Monaco Grand Prix figures to do well on Sunday, given the overall trend in F1 viewing this year, but it will be hard-pressed to come anywhere close to the Indy 500 (or even NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600). The racing hierarchy may be in flux, but at least for now there is still one day a year where IndyCar is definitively first.
IndyCar Indianapolis 500 (11a Sun NBC, Peacock). Prediction: 2.9, 5.63M.
Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix (8:55a Sun ESPN). Prediction: 1.0, 1.98M.
NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 (6:00p Sun FOX). Prediction: 2.4, 4.74M.
— PGA Tour from Colonial, final round (2p Sun CBS). Viewership for the PGA Tour at Colonial has been the highest since 2004 in back-to-back years. Don’t expect a threepeat. Last year’s audience was 3.11 million (pending revision). Prediction: 2.98M.
— MLB Sunday Night Baseball: Phillies-Mets (7:08p Sun ESPN2). With Celtics-Heat going seven, Sunday Night Baseball moves down the dial to ESPN2 this week. Expect viewership to fall below the current season-low mark of 961,000 for Giants-Cardinals two weeks ago. Prediction: 649K.
— WNBA: Phoenix-Atlanta (Noon Sun CBS). The WNBA gets another rare outing on CBS this Sunday. Given the bright-and-early Noon ET timeslot and the Indy 500 competition, do not expect much of a turnout. Prediction: 416K.
NBA Playoffs: Bucks-Celtics Game 7. Prediction: 4.7, 8.26M; result: 4.0, 7.48M
NBA Playoffs: Mavericks-Suns Game 7. Prediction: 3.2, 5.94M; result: 3.2, 6.29M
Stanley Cup Playoffs: Penguins-Rangers Game 7. Prediction: 1.1, 1.94M; result: 1.2, 2.33M
– Stanley Cup Playoffs: Stars-Flames Game 7. Prediction: 0.45, 908K; result: 0.51, 1.02M
Sunday Night Baseball: Giants-Cardinals. Prediction: 0.61, 1.02M; result: 0.57, 961K