The NBA got some troubling news last week about its viewership, with TV ratings for the Finals hitting historic lows. In fact, Games 2 and 3 were literally the least-watched Finals games of all time, according to Sports Media Watch. For the people whose job is to bring eyes to the product, those numbers are alarming in any context. But there’s also plenty of noise surrounding them that can be spun to fit whatever narrative you want to endorse, no matter how flimsy or politically-motivated.
Take, for example, United States Senator Ted Cruz’s recent Twitter spat with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. Cruz wasted little time before piggybacking on an anti-Black Lives Matter sentiment and propagating the claim that the recent ratings dip is a result of the league’s emphasis on social justice.
Of course, it’s difficult to definitively prove a direct correlation between the league’s support for social justice measures and its declining viewing figures. Even though a recent Harris Poll showed that 38 percent of respondents said they stopped watching the NBA because it was becoming “too political,” it didn’t take into account that there is a major gap between the percentage of democrats who watch the NBA versus the percentage of republicans, nor did it define what was meant by “political.”
Nielson data shows that other sports leagues like the MLB and NHL, during both playoffs and regular season, have seen significant viewership declines that are comparable to the NBA. The same goes for the NFL regular season, the U.S. Open, and the Kentucky Derby.
Perhaps most damning to the whole notion of social justice messaging driving viewers away are the results of a recent Morning Consult poll, which revealed that 66 percent of NBA fans supported social justice messages on jerseys, and 72 percent were in favor of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” appearing on the court.
The reality is that there are multiple factors that could’ve stolen eyes away from the NBA playoffs, including the adjusted schedule extending deep into the fall season, the fragmentation as it competed with other sports leagues, and a surge of cable news viewership that has been holding steady during the pandemic and election season. According to some experts, it’s difficult to try to read anything into these numbers. Via Variety:
“There is no proper context to compare the current NBA viewership post-COVID to any regular season,” says Tom McGovern, president of Omnicom Group’s sports media division Optimum Sports. “You’ve got an increased number of broadcast windows and start times that are an anomaly for this current season. The number of windows alone is going to dilute your average rating, you’ll have no West Coast prime time.”
Add to that the NBA’s ratings actually saw a spike during the restart when compared to before the shutdown, and the conclusions become even murkier. Then there’s the issue of logistics and the actual basketball product projected onto our screens. Never before has an entire NBA postseason played out in a single location without fans in attendance, and it is a starkly different viewing experience from the sheer electricity inside an NBA arena during a playoff game in front of a delirious home crowd. Players feed off that energy, and its absence looms large.
Yet, recent polls don’t clarify whether the lack of fans inside the arena in Orlando is actually a culprit in the ratings drop, although a separate poll suggests that at least some fans may question the validity of this year’s NBA title, given its unique circumstances. According to Lines.com, nearly one in five respondents (18.9 percent) said that they won’t consider this year’s NBA Finals completely valid. Of that number, less than 20 percent said it was because of social justice-related reasons, while a plurality (35.8 percent) pointed to the shortened season as its lack of validity. Of those questioning the validity, more than 27 percent said it’s because of the lack of home-court advantage, although that doesn’t tell us whether it’s caused viewers to tune out.
Given all these circumstances, the ratings dip has to be framed in its proper context: there’s simply too many factors involved to state definitively what’s behind that drop, whether it will persist into next season, and what the league and it’s TV partners must do to adapt to a changing TV viewership landscape. Viewed from an entirely different angle, the Bubble has been an astonishing feat of ingenuity. Considering the logistical challenges involved in a such a gigantic and unprecedented undertaking, there’s a million reasons why it should’ve failed, while the production folks have done an admirable job of recreating a serviceable approximation of that experience using artificial crowd noise, virtual fans, and other elements that help maintain the illusion of normalcy.
From a health and safety perspective, it’s been an unmitigated success. No one under the NBA umbrella — players, coaches, team personnel, etc. — tested positive while in the Bubble and, aside from a few breaks of protocol, things went about as smoothly as anyone could’ve hoped for. There was justified skepticism about whether any of this would work. Many feared that players would opt-out en masse because of concerns about the pandemic, or that a significant collection would stay home and fight for social justice and racial equality. Yet, when it came down to it, the vast majority decided to join their teams in Orlando, and since the games got underway back in July, the quality of the play has exceeded every expectation.
There have been thrilling highs and painful lows in the Bubble, all of which have made for captivating action. We’ve seen the Phoenix Suns’ perfect run through the seeding games; the Nuggets overcoming two straight 3-1 deficits in the playoffs; the Clippers’ stunning collapse; buzzer-beating game-winners from Devin Booker, Luka Doncic, and Anthony Davis; the Bucks’ collapse; Tyler Herro’s Billy Idol sneer; Jamal Murray’s layup package; Damian Lillard’s 40-foot bombs; an electrifying play-in game between the Blazers and the up-and-coming Grizzlies; Jimmy Butler’s ultimate vindication; LeBron James and Anthony Davis’ coronation; and about a hundred other things that would take too long to mention. In short, the NBA has been as good as ever in Orlando, and the playoffs have had no shortage of the typical intensity despite a fanless atmosphere that lacks the buzz of a postseason arena.
Back in March, the league acted swiftly in the aftermath of Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test, quickly putting the season on hiatus and prompting the rest of the sports world — and, generally, the entire country — to start taking the situation more seriously. Seven months later, we’ve managed to crown the Lakers as the 2020 NBA champions, an outcome that was almost unimaginable in the early days of the pandemic.
The fact that they were able to pull this off without any major catastrophes along the way is remarkable in itself. Beyond that, it’s helped set the stage for what could be permanent changes to the NBA calendar going forward. It’s unlikely that we’ll see another Bubble scenario next season, as Silver and the board of governors are adamant about getting fans back in arenas once it is safe to do so, but it’s nearly impossible to see the experiment in Orlando as anything other than a major success, as it’s kept the NBA afloat during one of the darkest and most uncertain periods in league history.
To be fair, it would be irresponsible to ignore or brush aside the ratings issue, especially in a Finals series that features its biggest star in LeBron James, something that has caused Silver to raise his eyebrows. But much of the discourse surrounding it also has to be taken for what it is: an effort to draw flimsy connections to undersell what the league has accomplished during the restart and point to political motivations that are difficult to quantify.