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NBA Return Yet to Provide Sports Shows a Ratings Boost

During the pandemic, ratings for sports television shows have plummeted. Around the industry, the expectation was that when sports returned, the viewership would too. Sports are back, and the ratings remain alarmingly low.

Last Thursday and Friday were the first telling days. While MLB returned a week prior, the sport is marginally discussed on daily studio shows. On a pie chart of topics, NBA and NFL would combine for around 90%. Thursday and Friday, coverage was nearly exclusively dedicated to the NBA, which mirrored topics pre-pandemic. Yet, the ratings didn’t match.

Among sports shows, PTI had the highest average (Thursday and Friday) at just 337,000 viewers, via ShowBuzzDaily. ESPN’s second and third most popular programs, First Take and Around the Horn, drew 265,500 and 202,500, respectively. Other averages included Get Up — 223,500; The Jump — 180,500; Highly Questionable —188,500; Jalen & Jacoby — 168,000; Undisputed —134,000; Speak for Yourself — 64,000.

At the same time last year, with no NBA games, the programs fared far better. For comparison, the top-rated show, PTI, is down from a 568,500 average. Its decline is comparable to other measured sports programming. 

It’s early, but this start is concerning. Remember, the NBA is the most discussed league on many of these shows. Particularly First Take, which, Thursday, spent its entire two hours on the league’s return. The NBA put its stars out front for next-day conversation. LeBron James vs. Kawhi Leonard, Lakers vs. Clippers, Zion Williamson. None of it mattered.

As I’ve been saying, viewership decline is not merely due to lack of sports. Since March, sports TV has simultaneously plummeted in quality. An industry already disconnected from its audience drifted further away.

In the months without months, sports programming fully embraced social topics. And drove the audience away. At least thus far, those viewers haven’t returned. How many of them aren’t coming back?

Months of hard-hitting social topics exposed several sports media shows and personalities. Media members put social justice above all else. Except when it came to China and anti-Semitism. In July, I explained how sports media personalities are opportunists. Brand-builders.

“The media declared Brees supporting the flag an unforgivable sin. More offensive than what DeSean Jackson said. Far worse than LeBron bending the knee to China. Brees’ comments were more disgraceful than what the NFL supposedly didn’t do for Kaepernick. And more condemnable than what NASCAR fans could’ve done, but didn’t do to Bubba Wallace. Furthermore, the NBA’s handling of China, its business partner, must have not been bad at all. It didn’t even make the topic sheet for most shows after Senator (Josh) Hawley’s letter to Adam Silver. The media must have thought its lackadaisical coverage of the topic in October would suffice.”

The sports media industry has fallen out of the good graces of sports fans. The audience doesn’t trust the opinionists, nor the reporters. Thus, they stayed away when sports returned.

Even if the programming pivots away from woke sports coverage, viewers won’t return the next day. It took three years for the NFL to regain its lost viewers amid national anthem protests.

Inevitably, at least for ESPN, the ratings will increase when live games air the night before as consumers are apt to leave the channel on. Football season, assuming there is one, gives each channel a boost. However, these averages need more than the regular fall spike. PTI failing to reach 400,000 is stunning. That’s an audience that has remained loyal since its 2001 launch.

What’s more, studio shows are reliant on the interest in live games. If that is down, the subsequent coverage will be, too. Kneeling is bad business; kneeling is the new norm. It is worth noting, moving forward, daytime sports will air head-to-head with various studio shows.

It’s not time to panic … yet.

Disclosure: Outkick’s founder Clay Travis is an on-air personality at FS1.

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.

9 Comments

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  1. Hey Bobby,
    I have the BIGGEST SMILE on my face while reading your analysis of TV sports’ ratings dilemma.
    Stopped watching all things ESPN a while back and stopped watching FS1 when Jason didn’t re-up, and my life goes on just fine.
    My Bronx Bombers are crushing it, and I haven’t watched a single pitch and I haven’t pumped my fist when a dinger went rocketing into the empty stands. Partly because no fans, but mostly because of the BLM bullchit. I don’t even check the NBA scores and I can’t get into hockey (lifelong NYR) because of the wacky time of year.
    I’m sure I’ll watch some NFL to see how they can screw it up (or maybe they’ll have learned from NBA and MLB nonsense). Thanks, Bobby.

    • Rev Sharpe Tongue and Skippy got so woke I had to tune them OUT. Skippy was literally wagging his finger at the Rev and saying “every white person should be made to understand blah, blah, blah…”. I think my mouth dropped open, but that’s when I expressed my freedom to NOT CHOOSE those two clowns. When Colin started using throwaway lines over a few weeks about “Pres. Trump will be gone in November” I disappeared him from my TV screen. SFY was a goner in my eyes once Jason left, and I’m not even sure the NFL will help them survive through this coming winter. No big loss, except for the folks behind the cameras who always take the hit.

  2. I agree with Rick (above). A really great piece.

    I got through the early days of the lockdown watching SFY at the “Crib” and the Jim Rome show switching back n forth with the Herd. I can never thank Whitlock, Marcellus, Bucher, LaVar, Darnell, Uncle Jimmy, etc. for helping me get through those dark, early days. Then Fight Island happened. I miss it. I’m a golfer so, that’s been nice.

    Fast-forward with this social-first angle, I’ve only been able to watch SFY. I think Acho was a good pickup. Wiley is a smart family man and takes the sting out of the BLM sham.

    NBA-haven’t watched one game. 99% chance I never will again.
    NFL-maybe watch mid-season when BLM pauses due to overkill and fatigue.
    NCAA-I think it will become Diet NFL & NBA as the athletes focus on brand building. Not watching.

  3. I love sports. I have played sports throughout my life, I go to sporting events whenever I can with my kids and friends. I used to love to watch basketball. I haven’t turned on one game yet or even looked up when the games are being played. I have watched a few innings of baseball. With all the media social justice barrage and athletes talking out of both sides of their mouth’s I just can’t stomach it anymore. I hope college football is better. I really love college football. Please don’t ruin that too.

  4. Can’t say much on behalf of any business that willingly risks alienating half of their customers, and in fact encourages employees to do so. Only the left feels compelled to swamp every aspect of the culture with their politics, sadly a source of “meaning” in otherwise godless lives. Keep up the great work, Outkickers.

  5. Good piece, Bobby. One nit worth picking… anytime you want to compare numbers to one another it is way better to have a table:

    TV Program. 2019 ratings. 2020 ratings. % diff

    It allows everyone to read and understand even more data. You can shade the % diff column to further highlight the miserable performance you did a nice job in covering.

  6. The arrogance of the league leaders and athletes has really come to light. I watch sports to root for my teams, see great competition, and get a break from the day-to-day grind. By inserting SJW narrative (including kneeling), it just detracts from the product. Athletes/commissioners can support causes on their time, but if they infringe on my sports viewing time, I will seek out alternative entertainment. Maybe they should start the WSJW league where you compete to be the most woke.

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