Why Michael Jordan’s 1998 Championship Is Still the Most-Watched Game in NBA History

NBA ratings don’t look good in 2020, reports Sports Illustrated. The networks regularly airing games face low ratings compared to last year, which also suffered a dip. The reasons aren’t quite clear, but the situation wasn’t always like this. Look back at 1998, the year the most-watched game in NBA history took place.

It was Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, and it lived up to every ounce of the hype thanks to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

The 1997-98 season saw Jordanmania at its peak

Chicago Bulls 1998 Championship team (L-R): Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, and Michael Jordan
Chicago Bulls 1998 Championship team (L-R): Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, and Michael Jordan | PETER PAWINSKI/AFP via Getty Images

In 1998, the Chicago Bulls served as more than one city’s NBA squad; they were the world’s team partly thanks to the greatest basketball player ever, Michael Jordan.

The Bulls won three championships in a row: 1991, 1992, and 1993. Jordan retired, played baseball, and mourned his father. Then he returned. Was His Airness the same? Of course. More championships: 1996 and 1997.

Come 1998, Jordan hinted that this could be the end — a finale to a career that hit all-time great status many years prior. Yet on the court, he seemed ready for anything. The Bulls slashed their way to the NBA Finals, where the Utah Jazz waited.

The high stakes of Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals

Utah was up in arms in 1998. Not just the Jazz players or organization, but the fans, too. They knew John Stockton and Karl Malone were special; this was by any definition, a super team. It just happened to come together at the same time as Jordan’s Bulls during their second period of terrorizing the NBA.

The Bulls dismantled the Jazz 4-2 in the 1997 Finals. The next season was supposed to be a much-needed comeback for Utah. But Chicago was up 3-2 in the series. The game was close. Back issues limited Jordan’s reliable sideman, Scottie Pippen. The Jazz were sailing towards tying the series. But in the final 42 seconds, Jordan began doing the thing he always did.

MJ was moving into empty space, materializing shots out of nowhere. He forced the score to within a single layup — and then he stripped Malone. Jordan bounded to the other side of the court, as Yahoo Sports reports, and opened space with a crossover. Byron Russell stepped up. Jordan gave him a shove — Jazz fans prefer to call it “committing a foul” — stepped back, and sunk the shot.

Five seconds left; the final shot of the golden age of Jordan’s Bulls. Sixth championship: won. The game averaged 35.9 million viewers. Only one other Finals game got close to that number. And it wasn’t that long ago.

The only NBA Finals game that comes close: Game 7 in 2016

When the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors went the distance in the 2016 NBA Finals, an average of 30.8 million viewers were along for the ride, reports Deadline. The game wasn’t nearly as evenly matched as the 1998 Bulls and Jazz. But even the best narratives can’t top Jordan’s draw.

LeBron James had rejoined the Cleveland Cavaliers after his controversial run with the Miami Heat. The team was strong enough to blow through the relatively weak Eastern Conference. But the Warriors, forged in the fires of the West, handily defeated the Cavs in the 2015 Finals.

James and Kyrie Irving scored 41 points apiece in a heroic Game 5 effort to force the series forwards. By the time the Cavs limped into Game 7, it seemed a miracle they made it that far at all.

They won the game. LeBron broke down in tears, as The Ringer recalls. The Warriors quickly added Kevin Durant to the roster to ensure it wouldn’t happen again. But ratings-wise, the ghost of playoff-mode Michael Jordan still loomed over the game.