It's Time to Worry About the NBA's Ratings

Self-inflicted wounds are purposely ignored until they can't be. For the NBA, that moment is inching closer.

Coming into the 2020-21 season, NBA games on ABC -- the league's most important partner -- were down 45% since 2011-12. On cable, it's only slightly less damning. NBA broadcasts on TNT were down 40% and 20% on ESPN.

To stick with more recent trends, the past two NBA Finals crashed to double-digit declines, with the most recent falling down 51% to an all-time record low. Last season's NBA on ABC games fit that same category, recording the lowest average (2.95 million) on record. According to The Athletic’s Ethan Strauss, that record will break once again this season. 

"Eventually, it will be official: The NBA again lost viewership on its ABC games, down from last season’s all-time low," Strauss writes. "Based on how this average drops as the season moves along (it starts off highest after the Christmas games bonanza), we can safely project that the ABC games will finish at a mark that’s lower than last season."

The current average for the premium network TV games to this point in 2020-2021 is 2.83 million.

Strauss adds that the jury is still out on how the NBA's ESPN and TNT games will compare to years past, but notes "recent results have been bad."

Tellingly, ESPN spent a day building up this past week's Wednesday night "showcase" between the Nets and 76ers. Per the hype, the matchup was a potential Eastern Conference Finals preview that could decide the top seed in the East. That must-see showdown (on ESPN) lost head-to-head to AEW Dynamite (on TNT), a wrestling brand created less than two years ago.

AEW's 1,219,000 topped the Nets-76ers' 1,095,000 and easily outpaced Mavs-Grizzlies, the second game of the night that drew just 942,000 viewers. Mark Cuban is a big demo guy; here are the demo comparisons: 1. AEW -- 0.44; 2. Nets-76ers -- 0.34; 3, Mavs-Grizzlies -- 0.32.

The interest in the NBA's is dwindling. Standalone NBA matchups don't attract a significant number of viewers anymore, fewer than the second most known wrestling brand in the country. 

No one single reason is to blame for the NBA's viewership lows, there are several.

The first reason is widespread, hitting all television programs and events. Traditional television viewing is under attack. Cord-cutting is increasingly viewed as a more efficient route for households. Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max, Peacock, and about 20 other services are yanking away paying television subscribers monthly. While I say this has hurt the NBA, it explains only a few lines of its viewership trends. 

Cord-cutting has hurt all TV products, but few products have experienced the bloodbath the NBA has. The NFL, cartoons, MLB (more on this in a minute), boxing, college football, the NCAA Tournament are/were all down this year.

The NBA, Grammys, late-night TV, ESPN's studio shows, the Golden Globes, and ESPYs have tanked to all-time lows. There's a difference. The entire second category all aggressively pivoted to woke, social justice messaging. Each group member spent significant air time over the past 12 months telling you that America is racist, that Donald Trump is Joseph Stalin, and that you are not doing enough to make a change. Those programs told half of the country they were not wanted.

Sticking on just the topic of sports, a recent study found that nearly half of America changed its sports viewing habits once political and social messaging spread across the leagues. MLB, which was down just slightly last year, is next up.

This year's NCAA Championship game between Baylor and Gonzaga drew nearly 10 million more viewers than any NBA Finals game in 2020. Last week, Clay Travis told Will Cain that the difference proved that "Americans love basketball, they don't love woke basketball."

Faces of the NBA like LeBron James have also been exposed as grandstanding hypocrites. They claim to be "more than athletes," society-first yet refuse to utter a negative word about Chinese genocide. Instead, these stars are cashing checks from Chinese shoe companies proudly using slave labor

Third, the NBA's overall product is, at times, unwatchable. It's not that the in-game quality is poor, it's that the stars barely play. Kevin Durant missed nearly half of this season and routinely just sits games out. Kawhi Leonard is synonymous with the words "load management." And other individual draws are rested regularly. Injuries are one thing, weekly "precautions" are another. If the NBA's regular season is so meaningless that the stars don't care enough to play, how can the NBA ask its fans to watch? It can't and the viewers don't.

The NBA's problems are real, growing, and concerning. Perhaps, unfixable.

I'm frequently asked on this topic, "Well, what does it mean?" The most predictable result is that the NBA will not be able to sit down with its broadcast partners during the next rights negotiations and simply name its price. According to CNBC, the NBA will seek a $75 billion rights package after the 2024-25 season. That's three times its current $24 billion deal with Disney and TimeWarner. Come those table meetings, will the NBA regret its middle finger to half of the country, its partnership with China, or the arrogance its players display by sitting out games? Put me down for yes.

Written by
Bobby Burack is a writer for OutKick where he reports and analyzes the latest topics in media, culture, sports, and politics.. Burack has become a prominent voice in media and has been featured on several shows across OutKick and industry related podcasts and radio stations.