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Television Plot twist: Suddenly U.S. TV viewers really want to see the Raptors

Kawhi Leonard makes exquisitely gnomic remarks that make you think, which is a challenge for those looking to make viral soundbites.

Kyle Terada/Reuters

Oh, so now they’re interested. Now we have their attention.

Last week I was telling you about the fear and the handwringing in the U.S. TV racket about the presence of the Raptors in the NBA Finals. Normally, the Finals are a ratings slam-dunk for the broadcaster, in this case ABC. The first Warriors/Raptors game on ABC brought a 10-year low in the overnight ratings. Cue the consternation. Damn that Canadian team for making it this far and, of course, for failing to galvanize American viewers.

Well now. Things change. Monday night’s nail-biter and series-extending game gave ABC its best overnight ratings of these NBA Finals to date. There was a huge jump, pun intended. That Warriors’ 106-105 victory brought a 34-per-cent growth from the average ratings of the first four games. Thirty-four per cent. The sound of a collective “phew” could be heard from inside the offices of ABC in Los Angeles, no doubt so loud it spooked people on the street outside.

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What’s going on here? Well, it’s always possible that a lot of people tuned in to ABC on Monday night expecting to see The Bachelorette, which usually takes up hours of programming on Mondays on the network. It’s not implausible. No way. American TV viewers are a tad eccentric, you know. Why, the other day, I looked at the online version of Cosmopolitan magazine, my go-to bible for cogent guidance of the popular culture. It said right there: “Watching The Bachelorette every Monday is obviously the most important thing we can do as American citizens.”

See that? Maybe millions of viewers watched the Warriors/Raptors game by accident. They expected to see Hannah B continue her thorough and fair-minded search for a good man by surveying shirtless dudes who have a knack for talking about themselves. Then, these viewers kept on watching to see the drama of Kevin Durant’s cameo appearance and exit and the late surge by the Raptors. Maybe the sight of Steph Curry chewing on the end of his mouthguard had them transfixed with mothering instincts for this man-child.

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In all seriousness there are truths to be mined here (Not that I don’t take The Bachelorette seriously. It’s irresistible – there’s a contestant vying for Hannah B’s attention, who says one of his hobbies is donating his sperm and he’s helped “create 114 children for all types of families.”). Viewer numbers always go up for a possible series-ending game, and that’s what Monday night was supposed to be. But 34 per cent is out of whack. It’s not a mere bump.

A possible truth is that the viewers in the United States are now genuinely interested in a great basketball series. Maybe they were unfamiliar with the Raptors and now they’re actually intrigued. The skill, the passion, the dogged refusal to be intimidated by reigning champions or reputations.

The U.S. media in general has been baffled by the Raptors and their success. Scornful, even. Jimmy Kimmel is still trotting out his anti-Raptors snark. “Those pesky poutine machines, the Raptors of Toronto” was one of his lines on Monday. (It takes about 14 people to write his material, would you believe?) Kimmel has already enraged former Raptor DeMar DeRozan by airing an unfunny skit made last year when the chap was with the Toronto team.

It’s a challenge, you see. It’s a challenge for the deeply conventional U.S. sports media to lift their gaze toward Toronto and the Raptors. As much as the NBA courts TV and other media coverage, the Raptors present a puzzle. Not only is Toronto considered a weird outpost of the NBA, its great players don’t give what U.S. TV wants. Try making a soundbite that might go viral from something Kawhi Leonard says. Just try it. It won’t happen. He’s not given to boasting or trash-talking. He makes exquisitely gnomic remarks that make you think. The nerve of that guy.

And now ABC is sending out press releases boasting about the ratings for these NBA Finals. Suddenly, U.S. viewers are more interested. (Locally, last Friday’s fourth Raptors/Warriors game had a staggering 3.5 million viewers on TSN and Monday’s fifth game on Sportsnet is certain to exceed that.) It’s the quality of the basketball, obviously. The ratings have shot up. Hey handwringers and gloomy pundits, how do you like our Raptors now?

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