ESPN/NBA Are Not Telling Full Story About League Ratings

Wednesday, ESPN put an AP story on its homepage, bragging that its favorite league, the NBA, is up 95% in viewership year over year. "NBA ratings for opening week up significantly from 2019," the headline reads. This is quite the spin-job, leaving the most important piece of context out.

What ESPN, the NBA and the AP fail to mention is that opening week 2020 is not comparable to opening week 2019. In 2019, the season tipped off on October 22, 2019. Due to COVID-19 rescheduling, the 2020 season tipped on December 23, 2020, meaning it includes an event known as Christmas Day. Heard of it?

Christmas Day is the NBA's primary regular-season showing. Combining a tradition and a day most Americans have off from work – Christmas Day games draw substantially higher numbers than a regular day. Pretty important context to leave out when comparing seasons, no?

Congrats to the NBA for having more viewers on Friday, December 25, 2020, than it did on Friday, October 25, 2019, a time when the country was not locked down or home for Christmas.

This misleading brag would be like the NFL opening next season on Thanksgiving and comparing that game's numbers to this past year's opener. Despite the lousy matchup, Dallas-Washington on Thanksgiving drew more than any other NFL regular-season game over the past year. Hmm, holidays must make a difference.

To properly judge the NBA year-over-year, compare it apples to apples. Take Christmas Day December 25, 2019, and Christmas Day December 25, 2020. Or for really good context, add in Christmas Day December 25, 2018.

Here's how that looks:

OutKick contextualized this data earlier this week:

"The average viewership of the five games is down 16.5 percent from last year and 25.3 percent from two years ago. The marquee primetime game, Mavs-Lakers, was down 20.1 percent from last year and a whopping 32 percent from 2018, a game which featured LeBron and the Lakers versus the not-yet-depleted Warriors. Prior to 2018, the marquee Christmas Day NBA game was in the 5:00 pm ET window, rather than at night. This season’s marquee game had the lowest viewership since 2007, according to the historical ratings chart from Sports Media Watch."

That doesn't sound too good. So much for that 95% rise.

The report did note that 2020 is the highest opening week since 2011. You might think back and wonder, "What happened in 2011?" I'll help: it's the last time the league opened during Christmas week. 

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.