NBA ratings drop due to pandemic, not social activism

November 14, 2020

When the 2019-20 NBA season ended a few weeks ago, one of the biggest stories at the time was the massive TV ratings hit the league took. While there was much fuss made over this drop—as should be expected with any large ratings drop—it is by no means a sign of things to come for the league.

The biggest hit the NBA’s ratings took happened during the restart games. Compared to last year, this year’s playoffs were down 37 percent and the finals were down 49 percent, including a few of the lowest-ever rated finals games in NBA history, according to ratings website Sports Media Watch.

This follows a trend throughout the sports world, where almost every major U.S. sport saw a decrease in ratings with the exception of the PGA Championship and Tour as well as the WNBA Finals. Every other sport saw a drop, with the NFL dropping the least (down 13 percent) and the Stanley Cup Final dropping the most (down 61 percent), per Sports Media Watch.

Some of the reasons for the NBA’s lower ratings match the reasons for the lower ratings throughout the sports world, starting, of course, with the ongoing pandemic.

The NBA bubble was considered a massive success, managing to go three months without a single positive test from anyone inside. However, in order to get in and out of the bubble as fast as possible, they had to schedule multiple games on the same day for the first month of play.

This no doubt led to fewer people tuning in. Three straight games in a day might sound fun if someone has the day off, but these games were going on all week, often starting around noon and going until ten at night; few people had time to watch them all.

On top of that, the NBA playoffs, for what might be the first time ever, had to compete with almost every other major sport all trying to begin or end their seasons at the exact same time. This was quite different from their regular playoffs time in May and June, where they would only have to compete with the MLB.

The other major effect the pandemic had on ratings was that people had more important things to worry about. With an ever-growing death toll, major unemployment, and a crucial election coming up, it’s not hard to see how sports might not have been as much of a priority for some.

Of course, the pandemic is not the only reason for the decrease in the NBA’s ratings, and some have offered up their own opinions on the matter. Many in the Republican Party, including President Donald Trump, have pointed out that this drop in ratings coincided with the NBA’s introduction of social justice messaging during games.

On the surface, this seems like a reasonable argument. The NBA’s ratings have been down since restarting, which happened to occur right as they started running ads about social justice and putting social justice slogans on courts and jerseys. In addition, according to a poll in mid-October from Marist, a public opinion polling group, 70 percent of Republicans said they were less likely to watch sports because of politics.

However, that claim doesn’t seem to account for the drop in ratings. For one, in this NBA season, prior to the pandemic, 11 percent of viewers were Republicans, according to polling organization Nielsen Voter Ratings. If all 70 percent of those Republicans who claimed they were less likely to watch sports because of politics actually stopped watching the NBA, they would only account for about a 6 percent decrease in ratings—not a 37 percent decrease. But even that didn’t happen. After the restart, the number of Republicans dropped to 10 percent—only a 1 percent decrease from before.

So, while it is possible that this attention to social justice has caused a slight decrease in the NBA’s ratings, it is by no means the leading cause—or even a major cause—of the drop.

It would seem that the pandemic is the biggest reason for the decrease in ratings since the restart of the NBA, and it probably is. However, it’s worth noting that this decrease in ratings didn’t begin with the restart, but during the regular season, well before the league shut down.

In December 2019, the NBA’s ratings were down about 20 percent, according to ratings website Sportsnaut.

The biggest reason for this was the end of the Golden State Warriors’ reign of dominance. After making it back to the Finals last year—for the fifth year in a row—two important players on the Warriors’ squad, guard Klay Thompson and forward Kevin Durant, went down with injuries which keep them out of the rest of the series and for the entirety of the next season.

After losing in six games, the Warriors’ future got a little worse when Durant left for the Brooklyn Nets in free agency. But they still had a great, healthy player to work with: in guard Steph Curry. And then, just a few games into the season, Curry went down with a broken hand. Just like that, the Warriors went from a juggernaut to sporting the worst record in the NBA.

Because of this, many fans of the Warriors stopped watching; few people wanted to watch Draymond Green, D’Angelo Russel, and a handful of mediocre players lose every night, especially after the team had been so good just one year before.

The bigger problem with the Warriors’ demise was the power vacuum they left. For the first time since 2015, no one really knew who was going to make the Finals; there was no unstoppable super team. While that might be a seen as good thing for devoted NBA fans who were growing tired of the Warriors, casual fans want to see super teams dominate, and this season had none of that.

What’s more, the other team with the most excitement never really got off the ground. The Nets, with brand-new stars Durant and guard Kyrie Irving, saw Irving play just twenty games and Durant none. They finished with the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, one lower than the year previous, and got swept in the first round by the Toronto Raptors. Not exactly the excitement fans were hoping for.

And to cap it all off, 2020’s most thrilling new rookie, forward Zion Williamson, played a mere 24 games and fell short of both winning Rookie of the Year and even getting close the playoffs.

The good news for the NBA is that these problems are unlikely to stick around. Curry, Thompson, Irving, Durant, and Williamson are all expected to play next season, and even if they can’t, there will be other stars of their caliber who will come along soon enough to take their place and fill the gaps they left.

There will be another super team, no matter how much devoted NBA fans hate to see it. The Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers are both in good positions to add another star to their already championship-caliber rosters. The Warriors are set to be back next season, armed with the number-two-overall draft pick, to flip or to keep. And forward Giannis Antetokounmpo is likely to become a free agent next off season, and will be able to choose which team will rule the NBA for years to come.

Eventually, the pandemic will end, and the NBA will adjust to whatever becomes the “new normal.” If this season has shown anything at all, it has shown that the NBA, and especially the NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, know how to adapt to difficult situations, and there should be every expectation that they can handle whatever comes their way next.

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