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On Thursday, Marc Berman of the New York Post published a story about the NBA Finals ratings. While Game 4 rose to 7.54 million viewers, the highest so far in the series, this is still down 42.7 percent from the 13.16 million viewers that watched Game 4 between the Raptors and Warriors in 2019. In 2020, the first three games of the NBA Finals broke records for low viewership, despite featuring LeBron James and the Lakers.
Berman cites sources saying that NBA commissioner Adam Silver is surprised:
“According to sources, commissioner Adam Silver still is surprised at the low audience with LeBron James chasing his fourth title at age 35. Silver is aiming for next year’s NBA Finals to not compete in the crowded sports month of October. Silver has made general comments that could signal a belief the emphasis on Black Lives Matter has resulted in a ratings fall.”
We’ve been over this issue a number of times. As I wrote earlier this week, it’s true that the NBA is out of season, other out-of-season sports like hockey and horse racing are down a lot too, and the game experience is weird with no fans in the stands. The NBA is competing against some football games and MLB playoffs, when it normally has national sports fans’ attention to themselves. There’s also an election and pandemic going on drawing a lot of attention to news.
On the other hand, the league’s biggest star, LeBron James, and its sexiest franchise, the Los Angeles Lakers, set one all-time low after another after another for NBA Finals viewership.
It’s therefore not surprising that Adam Silver is surprised. If you had told him that LeBron and the Lakers would be in the Finals before the bubble started, my guess is that he would have conservatively estimated that the series would average over 10 million viewers per game.
When asked by Rachel Nichols if social justice messaging would continue from the NBA going forward, Silver answered:
“We’re completely committed to standing for social justice and racial equality and that’s been the case going back decades. It’s part of the DNA of this league. How it gets manifested is something we’re gonna have to sit down with the players and discuss for next season. I would say, in terms of the messages you see on the court and our jerseys, this was an extraordinary moment in time when we began these discussions with the players and what we all lived through this summer. My sense is there’ll be somewhat a return to normalcy, that those messages will largely be left to be delivered off the floor.
“And I understand those people who are saying ‘I’m on your side, but I want to watch a basketball game.’”
I do believe that this year’s unconventional season will be at least a short-term floor for the NBA. The season will return to having the Finals in the summer when people are used to watching it. Kevin Durant will play in the New York market, and with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson back, the Warriors should at least be in contention.