LeBron's homecoming no match for 2010, football


LeBron James’ return to Cleveland did well for TNT, but the numbers did not quite justify all the hype.

With a 2.6 rating and 4.0 million viewers, the Cavaliers’ loss to the Knicks Thursday night delivered TNT’s largest regular season audience (excluding Opening Night) in two-and-a

-half years. It was up 44 percent in ratings and 50 percent in viewership from last year’s comparable game between the Knicks and Bulls.

In other words, the game was hardly a bust.

Still, considering the months of anticipation leading into the game, a full day of relentless promotion from ESPN, and a star-studded pregame concert on TNT, the numbers were somewhat underwhelming.

James’ return to Cleveland four years ago, in an environment as hostile as Thursday’s was welcoming, generated much stronger numbers. Miami's blowout of the Cavaliers drew a 4.2 and 7.1 million viewers, and that game was well out of reach by the third quarter. This year’s game was close into the final minutes.

James’ Heat debut also did much better, with the caveat that it aired on Opening Night. That game, a loss to the Celtics, drew a 4.6 rating and 7.3 million viewers on TNT — still the largest NBA regular season audience in cable history.

Of course, James’ first two seasons with the Heat generated obsessive media scrutiny. It is no coincidence that those seasons rank as the highest rated and most-watched ever on ESPN, TNT and ABC. Since James won his first championship in 2012, putting an end to one of the NBA’s most reliable narratives (‘will he ever win a ring?’), regular season ratings have fallen back toward pre-Decision levels.

Compared to those pre-Decision days, Thursday’s game did quite well. James’ first home debut in Cleveland, a 2003 game against the Denver Nuggets, drew a 1.9 rating and 2.7 million viewers on ESPN.

National interest in James' homecoming was not just low compared to 2010. Head-to-head, Knicks/Cavaliers ranked a distant third in a three-horse race between the NBA, college football and the NFL. Florida State’s near-upset loss to Louisville drew 5.0 million viewers on ESPN and the Saints/Panthers Thursday Night Football game scored 6.9 million on NFL Network.

Back in 2010, James’ return to Cleveland with the Heat trounced Thursday Night Football by 31% (7.1M to 5.4M) — with the caveat that NFL Network was in fewer homes back then.

Even if the interest was not as big nationally as four years ago, the game was a hit in Cleveland. TNT's broadcast drew a 27.0 rating, up 81% over the 2010 return.

Paulsen is the founder of Sports Media Watch and a contributor for Sporting News. Follow him on Twitter @Paulsen_SMW.