NBA Ratings Prove the League Is In an Undeniable Decline

The NBA ratings are worse than we thought last month when we found out they were worse than we thought.

Headed into the final week of the 2020-21 season, the NBA has averaged 1.4 million viewers across ESPN, ABC, and TNT, down 13% from last year's disastrous COVID-interrupted, bubble season.

NBA defenders -- at ESPN, Bleacher Report, USA Today and every other sports media outlet  -- are running out of excuses. "It's the bubble," they yelled last year when the ratings tanked.

Make no mistake, the NBA's declines have undoubtedly reached headquarters.

Coming into the 2020-21 season, NBA games on ABC — the league’s most prominent broadcast partner — were down 45% since 2011-12. Yes, 45%. Within that same time frame, NBA broadcasts on TNT were down 40%, and ESPN was down 20%. Come next week, this story will, somehow, read worse.

ABC's damning declines are most concerning. Last season, the NBA on ABC recorded its lowest average on record, 2.95 million. While exact figures are yet to be determined, ABC games this season will still come in lower. In other words, lower than an all-time low.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver previously expressed concerns about cable packages moving forward. I agree with him, though broadcast TV isn't the solution for the NBA.

There is a bevy of reasons the NBA is down to historical lows, but the main reasons are a result of the NBA's decision-making. As I argued earlier this year, self-inflicted wounds are purposely ignored until they can’t be ignored any longer. For the NBA, that moment is inching closer.

Let's first address cord-cutting. Nearly every TV property has been forced to weather a never-ending storm of new, intriguing viewing opportunities on the digital space. It was once merely Netflix. Now, it's Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max, Peacock, Apple TV+, Tubi, blah, blah, blah. Together, the services have yanked away a damaging number of paying television subscribers. Thus, streaming platforms have lowered the NBA's averages, as they have most products on TV.

But here is where the story begins: The NBA then took that number and nuked it by marinating its product in subjective political stances presented as indisputable facts.

"Everything is down big on TV, you bigots," the media echoed to defend programs like the NBA that embraced social justice messaging. Of course, that excuse is misleading.

While everything on TV is down (for the reasons I explained above), the bloodbath has been exclusive to the products that have told half of their viewers that the viewers are racist white supremacists. That police are dangerous murders. That if they don't judge every individual by their skin color, they will not be awarded the title of an "anti-racist," the online get-out-of-jail-free card.

The NFL, cartoons, MLB (for now), boxing, outdoor programming, college football, and the NCAA Tournament were all down this year. Some still are. However, the NBA, Oscars, Grammys, late-night TV, ESPN’s studio shows, the Golden Globes, and ESPYs have fallen to unimaginable all-time lows. There's a difference. One group was hit by cord-cutting. The other was hit by both cord-cutting and the decision to join a divisive culture war.

Think about this: The NFL Draft's first round (12.52 million viewers) did to the NBA Finals (7.45 million) what opposing TV shows did to High Noon with Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre. They crushed it, embarrassed it, shamed it. This year’s NCAA championship game between Baylor and Gonzaga drew nearly 10 million more viewers than any NBA Finals game in 2020. The NCAA championship, between two schools the nation doesn't much care about.

Painting "Black Lives Matter" on the court, endangering heroic police officers, lying about race relations, promulgating a myth that police are "hunting" black people, bowing to the Chinese Communist Party, and profiting off slave labor all play well online and with shoe companies. But they do not resonate with a majority of the American population.

A recent study proves as much, finding that nearly half of America changed its sports viewing habits once political and social messaging began to spread across the leagues, particularly the NBA.

In addition to the NBA lowering its already declining interest, its stars have also negatively impacted viewership numbers. More often than not, nationally televised NBA games are unwatchable, often because the biggest stars barely play. The NBA views star players as its greatest strength, which is mostly correct. Yet these same stars are now hurting the league by resting on the bench.

The new, glamorous Brooklyn Nets trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden has played fewer than 10 games together. LeBron James milked an ankle injury, saying he will never again be 100%. Kawhi Leonard takes games off for the hell of it. Whether because of injuries or leverage -- star players are not on the court. If they don't play, fans don't tune in.

Last month, fans were so fed up with stars randomly sitting out that an episode of AEW Dynamite  (1,219,000) -- the country's second-ranked wrestling promotion -- topped the much-hyped Nets-76ers (1,095,000) matchup head-to-head.

The full impact of the NBA's plummet will not be felt until 2024, the year the NBA will likely lock up new broadcast deals with television partners. According to CNBC, the NBA will seek a $75 billion rights package next go-around, three times its current $24 billion deal with Disney and TimeWarner. Though the NBA should see an increase, given the market for live sports, it's going to have a hard time making the case for tripling the price. The product is in clear decline. Lost viewers have not returned, they have been joined.

The damage is done. The NBA has made it clear where it stands. It despises half the country as immoral racists just as it readily accepts Chinese slave labor to make a buck. These are not issues, these have become the league's identity. Unlike issues, identities cannot be reversed.

The NBA is past the point of realizing it has peaked. It's at the stage where it must deal with its fall.

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.