LOS ANGELES — For the NBA, and ESPN, LeBron James remains the gift that keeps on giving.
The NBA Finals begin Thursday, with no shortage of juicy storylines. James returns to the championship round for the sixth consecutive year, seeking to bring a first title home to Cleveland. Moreover, it’s a rematch with Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors, which beat an injury-depleted Cavaliers squad last year.
Ratings for that series averaged nearly 20 million viewers, the highest since Michael Jordan’s last Finals appearance in 1998. Barring a four-game sweep (which reduces ad inventory and tends to deflate ratings), ABC/ESPN should reap the benefits of having both teams back.
Still, the value James has brought to the playoffs goes beyond what appears on a ratings stat sheet. Perhaps foremost, his presence has obscured a power imbalance between the NBA’s Western and Eastern conferences, with James — and the coverage that has swirled around him — offsetting the dominance of teams like Golden State and San Antonio during the regular season.
Once NBA and ESPN officials know that James and company will vie for another title, they can rest easy. Ratings-wise, the star’s nickname, King James, fits.
Over the last five years, the Finals have averaged roughly 17.4 million viewers, per Nielsen data. That reflects a substantial increase from 13.7 million over the eight previous years, despite the fact that James’ teams faced San Antonio or Oklahoma City — two of the smaller TV markets in the NBA — three times during that span.
James also played in the least-watched Finals, when the Spurs swept Cleveland in 2007. That playoff predated James leaving Cleveland on the worst possible terms in 2010, announcing he would “take my talents” to Miami in a live TV spectacle titled “The Decision.”
Since then, James has brought a soap-opera quality to the league. He initially wore the villain’s hat in Miami, while winning a pair of championships. After that, he returned to Cleveland, which welcomed him home, even if the hostility lingered for many elsewhere.
The NBA has long been the most star-driven of the major sports, said Whitney Wagoner, director of the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. But James has played an oversized role even by those standards, in part by ginning up interest among casual fans.
“When you get beyond X’s and O’s and wins and losses, he starts to get to people who fall outside the NBA fan profile,” Wagoner said. “The narrative is broadening the audience.”
James also served as a bridge to a younger generation of stars, she noted, including the Warriors’ Curry. Without James, many would no doubt perceive the record-setting Western Conference Finals — in which Oklahoma City extended the Warriors to seven games — as the de facto championship.
All told, James plays a substantial role in providing fodder for hours of pre- and post-game analysis that ESPN will offer as bookends to the game telecasts on its Disney sibling, ABC.
James is one of the most highly compensated athletes in history. Between his salary and endorsement deals, his net worth is estimated to exceed $300 million. He has already branched out into other areas, such as TV production and acting. That includes producing the Starz comedy “Survivor’s Remorse,” about an NBA star and his entourage; and roles in the 2015 movie “Trainwreck” and an announced “Space Jam” sequel.
The assist James provides the NBA and its TV partners, though, might actually be a bargain at twice the price. Because in terms of advancing the league’s business interests, the star has seemingly made all the right moves.