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NBA Viewership is More Troubling Than We Thought

A year and a half ago, while the sports media gushed over the NBA, I pointed out that the league’s ratings were troubling. They’ve continued to worsen, highlighted by last season’s double-digit Finals decline.

This week, the most troubling stat yet was publicized. The Athletic’s Ethan Strauss pointed out, since 2011-12, the NBA on ABC is down 45%. Nearly half.

ABC is the NBA’s premium partner. Nearly every broadcast, it showcases top matchups and players. Yet, viewers are tuning out an alarming rate.

“In that hastily promoted lockout season, [2011-12], ABC games drew 5.42 million viewers on average,” Strauss writes. “The final tally on this latest 2019-20 season was 2.95 million average viewers on ABC games. Every ABC game from 2011-2012 received higher viewership than 2.95 million, save for a meaningless late season 1 p.m. Thunder-Bulls game that Derrick Rose sat out.”

A decline of this magnitude is astounding. There is no explanation other than the interest in watching the NBA on television is rapidly diminishing. Since 2011-12, the NBA has had stars, superteams, storylines, and coverage that resembled state-run media. It couldn’t ask for more.

It’s not just an ABC problem, either. On TNT, in the measurement from 2011-12, NBA viewership is down 40%. In that same span, ratings fell 20 percent on ESPN. Strauss adds the league’s local viewership, too, has sharply declined.

These decreases are what sitcoms experience before cancellation. No, the NBA won’t get axed. However, the shrinking interest is more than a concern.

The NBA’s issues are growing larger, not smaller. The regular season doesn’t matter. Few games are of any consequence. Thus, players sit out and blame “load management.” If players don’t care, why should fans? They shouldn’t and they don’t.

Equally troubling, most seasons, only two-three teams are contenders. The rest are wasting their time; the fans know this, too.

As one digs deep into the NBA’s problems, they’ll find that its strengths are its problems.

The NBA’s greatest strength is its stars. Stars that overshadow teams. The league is too reliant on a few top individuals. And the gap between LeBron James and No. 2 is massive.

LeBron is so important to the NBA’s interest, his move out West decreased the ratings for doubleheaders. In addition to more homes in the Eastern time zone, viewers who watched a LeBron-led early game were likely to keep the channel on for the late game. This has been lost as he now primarily starts at 10:30 ET on weekdays.

In December, LeBron turns 36. His days of carrying the NBA are dwindling.

Social media has promoted the NBA more than any other entity. The NBA is to social media what MLB was to newspapers and what the NFL is to flat-screen televisions. Twitter and Instagram, particularly, have grown the league’s interest. That’s great. What’s not: it doesn’t lead to television viewership. Instead, it encourages fans to consume games through highlights and live reactions online.

To the younger demographic, social media is a more enjoyable medium to consume the NBA. At least as of now, and likely for years to come, a rights deal with a television network is exponentially more lucrative than what social media can provide.

Social media and dependence on LeBron have helped — until they didn’t.

When I write or report on NBA viewership, some woke media personality jumps in anger and yells “cord-cutting!!” Not really. Sure, cord-cutting has negatively impacted every broadcast. But viewership is not crumbling for other sports leagues.

Last season, the NFL’s nationally televised games remained close to flat from 2012. Going from 16.6 million to 16.5 million. And that includes the few years the ratings crashed due to Colin Kaepernick and league-wide kneeling.

MLB, too, is close to flat. In 2012, baseball drew 2.5 million viewers on network television; in 2019, it averaged 2.4 million.

Cord-cutting is a small factor in the NBA’s decline.

Looking ahead, in addition, the NBA must now deal with a self-inflicted setback. Another concern the league originally saw as smart business. The NBA is a left-leaning political league. It’s not merely dismissive of conservative views, it shames them. Led by the players, the league has embraced this identity. 

Fragmentation is the result. The NBA is inching toward a niche product. One that doesn’t cater to average sports fans, the important group it has deserted.

Written by Bobby Burack

Bobby Burack covers any news story that deserves attention but focuses on media. His interests include reading Stephen King novels, avoiding traffic on the road, and pretending to solve true-crime mysteries. He still believes Cersei should've won and encourages everyone to always question the news.

30 Comments

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  1. Well the market is speaking loudly they are not down with the chicom loving America hating dopes playing the game apparently the owners don’t get it either. I mean the head dope just came out and said hey we don’t care if you watch or not wow ok genius here ya go.

  2. wow..Great update Bobby..When will this impact tv contracts and the revenue pool? I can tell you that my group of friends primarily late 30’s to early 50’s who are diehard hoops fans hate the SJW preaching and have bailed on the NBA..Love the PGA ‘s lack of politics.

    • totally agree.. my friends and family in similar age group have stopped talking about NBA. Its like all my friends/family have lost interest in the NBA. I sent a group text to see who is watching the games and I didn’t get 1 response. nobody cares about nba.

  3. With a stiff for a commissioner straight out of central casting for the Star Wars bar scene shilling for a country that would like to wipe us out, various coaches whose life mission is to hector the unwashed into wokeness, and a plethora of players who couldn’t spell CAT if you spotted them the C and the T delivering their version of the middle finger to the paying customers daily, ………I ask you, Greg!! Who wouldn’t want to watch?

  4. Add to the hectoring, know-nothing left wing sermonizing the fact that the product itself — as Jordan would say: “the game of basketball” — has become nearly unwatchable. Porous, nearly non-existent defense and the banishment of physical play, with offenses that basically do two things: launch scads of threes (after a guy ISO’s for most of the shot clock) and hunt for flop-rewarding free throws. The Hardenization of the NBA may be admired by analytics groupies, but it’s no longer enjoyable. I grew up in the Golden Age — Magic’s Lakers, Bird’s Celtics, Jordan’s Bulls, the Bad Boys, et al., when the league was infinitely tougher, the rivalries produced real athletic hatred (and respect), going to the rack was an act of courage and “load management” was unthinkable.

    Now it’s social justice laundry playing in an empty arena.

    The athletes are more gifted than ever, but the game no longer has any broad, cultural resonance. The drift was apparent five years ago; belligerent awokening has just hastened the demise.

    Donovan Mitchell just scored the third most points ever in a playoff game. It’s now Jordan, Baylor, Mitchell in the history books. Yawn. He’s a fine player, but, c’mon. Everything has been cheapened. I’d wager Lillard or Doncic maybe Booker will hit for 70 this post-season, and other than the groupies on ESPN, nobody will care.

    As someone who used to be an avid fan, I won’t watch a minute of the Bubble-thon, and won’t miss a bit of it. Niche sport is the correct diagnosis. I think that trajectory is locked in and accelerating.

    • Anthony, I agree about the game becoming unwatchable. It is nothing like it once was. And you are right about the “analytics groupies”. The analytics might say it is a good strategy to launch threes and hunt for flop awarding free throws, but it makes games very boring (and I personally think the refs determine the entire outcome)…..and if younger generation (high school and college age) like seeing dunks, all they have to do is watch the highlights. there is no point in watching the whole boring game

  5. Can you do an article on WNBA ratings? I’m sure they’re doing great. I mean, that’s also must see tv. I really think these players, coaches and these leagues will rue the day they knee jerked themselves into pledging allegiance to the Marxist, racist, Black Lives Matter political organization instead of the United States of America. So will the Washington team that plays football, or whatever they’re now called.

    • Great posts…
      Yes.. somebody do a piece on the WNBA! The amazing viewership, the ignored hypocrisy (98% of the Women In The WNBA Are Gay”—And They Bully Straight Players – Candace Wiggens), WNBA and Domestic Violence in LGBT Community, demands for equal pay etc….
      I thought these issues only involved us neanderthal dudes.

  6. Nice work Bobby. All factors are working against the NBA. Including the players.

    This passage nailed it:

    “ Equally troubling, most seasons, only two-three teams are contenders. The rest are wasting their time; the fans know this, too.”

  7. I’m gonna throw this in:

    The playing style is usually boring, so the games are dull until crunch time. Nobody runs halfcourt sets, and the game is drive-and-kick, pick and roll, or foul baiting. Everyone is trying to play Warriors ball, math ball, that sort of thing.

    Fewer and fewer players have interesting, individualized offensive packages. Jason Tatum does and he’s really fun to watch. Lillard does. But by and large, the games are like watching the water in a washing machine go back and forth sometimes. Oh, he made it. Oh, he made another one. Oh, he missed it. And on and on.

    PLUS the level of ticky-tack fouls in the regular season really makes the games hard to stick with. It feels like there’s action maybe a quarter of the time spent watching.

    I still watch, but I really love basketball, and it’s on, and I need something to do.

  8. Until the decline starts reducing their salaries due to reduced TV contracts, they won’t care! The NBA & it’s players are so arrogant & use to bullying people to get their way, they don’t care who they offend or chase away. Only reduced $$$ will get their attention.

  9. The combination of a lack of fundamental (see good basketball) and the SJW woke brigade that is the current NBA it is no wonder ratings would be down. AAU glorifies dunking and 3 pointers so players don’t play defense and they don’t have any type of mid range game. It’s all about the highlights. Oh well perhaps China can save the NBA.

  10. It appears that the NBA players hate our country (the one that allowed them to become millionaires) and embrace an oppressive country (China) that has concentration camps and slavery. Many American people find that hypocritical.

  11. This would explain their “all-in” approach to China. They are having to replace what they are experiencing or will soon with revenue from television and advertising contracts drying up. I would also be interested to know about how attendance and corporate sponsorship compares during this time as well.

    If the NBA is to continue paying out large contracts, then they need revenue coming from somewhere. If China doesn’t supply that replacement revenue, then player salaries are going to come down. I think the players know this and are willing to make that deal with the ChiComs to keep the money flowing.

  12. Bobby, Great article with a ton of facts. The NBA and sports media can make whatever excuses they want, but they have done it to themselves. As a huge sports fan that was starved for entertainment, I have not watched one second of the NBA. I don’t want to be preached to and I don’t want politics with my sports. I get enough of that everywhere else. I have watched more hockey, MLB and golf than I ever have. I can’t wait for SEC football. I have a feeling I’ll be skipping the NFL just like the NBA.

  13. Bobby. Seriously well written piece. I think this topic isn’t covered enough. The NBA because you can see the players (black) it’s a coddled entity. I’ve often thought it looks the NBA is paying the media to cover their content by the way it is shown to the masses. Boring, boring and while we are being boring let’s tell all of you what despicable racists you are. Can we get one true cops shot a person of color story straight. It seems every cop dust up story has holes that a piece of swiss cheese would envy.
    Back to the product. Checked out around Jordan time. When I hear about the league now it’s usually some playground beef, who wore what to the post game, Lebron taking a dig at Trump. It’s such a losing strategy and I can barely bring myself to slam Adam Silver again, but Captain Queeg would look at his stewardship and say you need to reset man.

  14. So let me get this straight…viewership is down for a virulent “woke” league that is pro-China, Anti-American, with multi-millionaire players who “load manage” and play a sport indoors during a time when everyone (many of them fighting for their economic lives) has been locked down and want to be outdoors getting fresh air and exercise?

    Well played NBA. Well played.

  15. Time is the most precious commodity I have. I choose not to spend it being preached to by coddled millionaires. I respect their ability as athletes. As far as for their life lessons they want to impart, not so much. Long live the PGA…..

  16. The NBA has given the middle finger to a large portion of its audience. I don’t know the breakdown, but a substantial portion of all pro league fans are White Boomers. I’m one of those White Boomers. I do not want to watch athletes promote political causes – I want to watch athletes play sports. This seems basic to me, but not to the NBA. Alright, then let’s see what happens. If their business model suffers and the money tree yields less fruit, maybe Silver and his owners will re-evaluate their strategy. Or maybe not. China may supply them with all the money they need. Stay tuned…

    I’m much more of a baseball and hockey fan than I am a basketball fan. I was disgusted by MLB Opening Day – the BLM logo on the mounds, the BLM pandering on videos, kneeling for the anthem, all of it. But I asked myself, is this crap a one off or something I would be forced to endure at every game? So far, it’s a one off. As much as I don’t agree with it, I can understand why MLB did it. Throw the Twitter mob a bone and they might leave us alone. Weather the storm and hope the bad people go away. I love MLB more than any other pro sport. I’m a rabid Dodgers fan. Been so literally all my life. That said, if MLB does anything more than give occasional lip service to the BLM bullcrap, I will not watch or follow MLB. I can’t stomach ESPN, but when I want to watch a game on the Wokecenter Network I turn off the sound.

    I hope and pray that MLB and the NHL do not go down the road the NBA has chosen to pursue. Jason Whitlock’s columns and commentary on this topic are right on point.

  17. Said in the comment section of JW’s recent article. It’s mind blowing what LeBron James could have contributed to the betterment of life in America. Think of it. Telling men of color that you have got to be a parent and raise kids that value education, respect police and love god. Say that most days and what the impact would have been. No. Just go with America sucks, police shoot black people all day long and I hate Trump. You went that way.

  18. I would bet there are a lot of 32 year olds like me who didn’t cut the cord or boycott but slowly stopped watching the NBA unconsciously over the last several years. It’s unlikely they get me back now and I’m in their desired demo with disposable income.
    I wish I wasn’t so spiteful but the constant shaming of a guy like me makes me find myself kind of rooting against the league. I’m interested to see how this plays out for them in the long term.

  19. I will not watch LeMao while he continues to wipe his arse with Due Process, and freedom of speech for all (I stand with Hong Kong; gee, that was hard to do).

    I respect his game, truly he is one of the best ever, but he is like the anti-Michael Jordan in terms of a form of ‘viewership repellent’ for myself.

  20. Another problem is that the leagues premier player is someone nobody likes and for reasons that transcend sports. People hated Kobe and MJ, but only because they’d show up in your house and drop 40 or 50. At least, that was the real reason they hated them. But if you were a Bulls or Lakers fan you loved them. I’m a Laker’s fan who went to his first game as a kid in the 70s. My son’s middle name is Kobe – seriously, that’s on his birth certificate. I can’t stand LeBron to the point I will not watch another Lakers game while he wears the uniform. This while I acknowledge that he is at least belongs in the conversation of the greatest Lakers player ever – at least in terms of talent. He obviously doesn’t have the accomplishments that other Lakers greats have while wearing a Lakers uniform because he didn’t play here his whole or most of his career. But he is capable of putting up numbers that compete with any Lakers great in any given game. But I just can’t stand to look at his face. So I won’t. I hated when MJ would come to town and torch my Lakers – and Bird and Oscar. But I didn’t hate their faces.

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