NBA commissioner Adam Silver has a huge problem on his hands, one that appears inordinately global for its domesticated fan base.
According to yahoo finance, the start of the 2018-2019 season saw ratings on TNT network down 26% from the previous year, and in just six weeks of the 2019-2020 season, TNT ratings have slid another 23% from last season’s decline in ratings. ESPN ratings are down 20% this season.
So what’s behind this fan disengagement trend?
Injuries, load management, late games on the west coast, tanking, NBA politics -almost all of these issues carry some veracity, as to why the casual fans’ excitement for the regular season has dwindled.
While the NBA is the most popular North American league worldwide, the sport has seen a steady decline in attendance and television ratings the last few years. Compared to the NFL, the NBA has significant strides to make to even be mentioned in the same sentence, here in the U.S.
Now obviously, 16 games is going to generate much more anticipation than 82 games. Especially, since football is generally played on Sunday when people can relax from the work week.
Basketball, on the other hand, has abandoned much of its competitive tradition with the advent of player movement. Fans no longer follow teams, they follow players. Now more than ever, players are leaving teams via free agency and demanding trade requests with years still remaining on their contracts.
The loyalty of tradition and team spirit is a big component to why the NFL’s business model is much more successful than the NBA’s. If you ask most people why they root for an NFL team, it’s most likely because that’s the town they’re from or it was their Dad’s favorite team. That isn’t so much the case in basketball, at least not anymore.
The NFL makes no bones about who its target audience is: middle-aged conservatives, mostly caucasian men, sprinkled in with SuperBowl ads catering to young adults, women, and children across America.
The NBA is aiming its appeal towards a much younger demographic as evidenced by its social media following. As of 2019, the NBA has 42 million followers on Instagram, 28.7 million on Twitter and 38.6 million on Facebook. In comparison, the NFL has just 17.2 million followers on Facebook, 15.9 million on Instagram and 24.8 million on Twitter.
To some degree, social media has negatively influenced basketball television ratings. Instead of watching 48 minutes of basketball, millions of people scroll through 15-second highlight reels to catch the action, now.
Opting to appeal to youth over tradition has affected the league’s image and fan loyalty. Basketball today is widely viewed as a young man’s game.
Even the commercial advertisement is different. NFL commercials typically promote beer, trucks, body wash, shaving products and wrangler jeans, all things associated with grown men. Whereas the NBA promotes jerseys, sneakers, and car insurance. After a while, it becomes clear that kids and young adults are the focus point for marketing.
The players are also entering the NBA at much younger ages than in previous decades. In 2018, three teams (Denver Nuggets, Portland Trailblazers, and Chicago Bulls) had a roster whose average age was 24 years or younger.
In football, players aren’t eligible for the NFL draft until after their junior season in college. Player development and maturity levels are to the NFL’s advantage. The reason age matters in this instance is because players who get paid the big bucks at earlier ages tend to have less incentive to bring passion into the workplace. Fans receive the message as players caring more about the perks than the passion for the game.
The NBA is also far more progressive and liberal than the NFL.
Some have called into question whether or not the NBA’s embrace of the “woke athlete” generation has triggered fans to look for a different escape route from politics in the world. Everyone from LeBron James and Daryl Morey to James Harden and Gregg Popovich weighed in on the democracy protests in China. To the average fan, bringing politics into sports is seen as divisive and distracting.
Another indication for the NBA’s decline is the bevy of injuries suffered by elite-level players.
Kevin Durant (Achilles) and Klay Thompson (ACL tear) are expected to miss the entire NBA season due to injuries. Stephen Curry (broken left hand) and Demarcus Cousins (ACL tear) are out indefinitely. It is likely that they’ll both miss the entire season along with Thompson and Durant. All four of these All-Star players appeared in the 2019 NBA finals.
The Golden State Warriors went from being the most televised team on a nightly basis for three consecutive years to experiencing a 51% drop in local viewership this season. The team’s struggles have led to the removal of several televised games for December 13 and December 19.
Rookie Zion Williamson, who was the No. 1 draft pick for the New Orleans Pelicans has yet to play a single game this season. Williamson injured his left knee in preseason and is out indefinitely.
The Los Angeles Lakers are scheduled for 43 nationally televised games this season, the most of any team. The three-hour time zone difference means that many fans on the east coast turn their tv’s off before the games end.
Adam Silver has proposed several ideas to boost league interest. Some of which include: a shortened season from 82 games to 78, a midseason tournament, and reseeding the playoff format according to best record.
The injury bug may be the most viable reason for this season’s particular decline. Although, injuries are a part of any sport and they happen every year, it does hurt to have two of the top five popular players out for an entire season.
Tanking and load management are mostly contrived media narratives that assume a team is intentionally losing (tanking) to get higher draft picks or resting a player (load management) to gain an advantage for the playoffs. Regardless, the regular season has become of lesser importance, in large part due to sports media narratives.
Finally, the NBA is caught in a serious dilemma of prioritizing its larger international fanbase and appeasing its core demographic in the U.S. The NBA’s progressiveness has allowed players to earn more guaranteed money than NFL players, even though the NFL generates nearly $7 billion more in revenue, annually.
On the other side of that coin, fans are turned off by the incessant need to politicize the sport. Catering to a younger demographic that is watching less television and more online streaming has factored into the dip in ratings.
The NBA surely can regain footing by expanding more into online subscription-based services. If the NBA is successful in adapting to the streaming game, we may have to reconsider the importance of television ratings, especially since the future of cable television is headed towards streaming.