Is The NBA’s Ratings Decline Because Basketball Has Taken Center Stage?

On the face of things, the start of this season of NBA basketball could not be unfolding more smoothly for fans and owners. For the first time in over half a decade the Los Angeles Lakers, arguably the league’s crown jewel of franchises, are back to being at the top of the league, with the league’s most iconic player, LeBron James, once again leading the way after sitting out much of last season. Established stars such as James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and new ones such as Luka Doncic are all putting up historic numbers, putting on a show for the fans every night. And yet, the league’s television ratings tell a starkly different story.

Viewership numbers for national broadcasters TNT and ESPN are both down by over twenty percent to start the season, and this has prompted questions and concerns across the league and across basketball media. After all, the NBA was supposed to be the ascendant king of American sports, less scandal-plagued than the NFL and cooler than Major League Baseball. The top stars of the NBA have name recognition and global brands that only soccer stars like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo can hope to match, and far greater followings domestically. So what is happening?

One reason could be that as one of the league’s marquee franchises has risen again, another has fallen off a cliff. The falling franchise would, of course, be the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors left an indelible stamp on the NBA this decade, making five straight NBA Finals (winning three) and boasting a lineup stacked with superstars: Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Whether you loved them or hated them, the Warriors dominated the NBA conversation. And yet this season, with Durant gone in free agency and Curry and Thompson out injured, the Warriors have crashed back down to earth, on pace for the league’s best record. Draymond Green himself has gone on record saying he believes that his team’s decline is a major factor in the league’s relatively poor ratings.

Another factor is likely that the league's gamble on emerging talent has backfired on it spectacularly. This summer, the New Orleans Pelicans drafted Duke’s Zion Williamson first overall, and anticipation for his NBA debut was higher than perhaps any NBA draft pick since Lebron James in 2003. Hoping to capitalize on this, the Pelicans were scheduled for a disproportionate number of prime time national games despite playing in one of the NBA’s smallest markets. But Williamson went down in preseason with a knee injury, and as a result, the league had no choice but to air the Pelicans in many of those games nonetheless. It would be as if Disney was forced to edit Robert Downey Jr out of Avengers: Endgame right before opening weekend- the box office would be devastated.

Another cause is less easy to point to, and yet it may be one of the most important. In recent times and especially last year, conversation around the NBA has focused around speculating about when and where certain stars will change teams more than the actual basketball play itself. Beginning with Lebron James’ televised “Decision” to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in 2010, this past decade has seen unprecedented player movement. James to Miami, then back to Cleveland, then to Los Angeles. Chris Paul from New Orleans to Los Angeles to Houston, then Oklahoma City. Kevin Durant to Golden State, then Brooklyn. The list goes on, with the most recent free agency period featuring two huge stars changing teams in Kawhi Leonard (to the Clippers) and Anthony Davis (to the Lakers).

The conversation around these moves dominated NBA conversation even during the season, but this year there is none of that to be found. The star considered most likely to demand a move, Washington’s Bradley Beal, signed a contract extension instead, and no blockbuster trades seem imminent. Speculation around Minnesota’s Karl Anthony Towns has quieted as his team has started the season well, and in any case he has several years left on his current contract. No stars seem to be unhappy, so there is little oxygen to feed the cycle of speculation around player movement. Oklahoma City has likely tried to trade future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul, but his contract is so large and onerous that few suitors appear interested. What trade conversation there is centers around lesser names such as Orlando’s Aaron Gordon and Cleveland’s Kevin Love.

In a podcast during the NBA Finals, ESPN’s Zach Lowe acknowledged the fact that the actual games seemed to be a secondary storyline to the impending free agency of Leonard and trade of Davis, even though Leonard was on the verge of clinching the NBA championship and winning Finals MVP! I remember being taken aback by this when I heard the episode as it aired- this is someone who is paid to watch and appreciate the game talking. If the enjoyment of someone like him can be affected by the player movement conversation, imagine how the mass of more casual fans must feel.

It may be that all of this talk of ratings decline is just a temporary blip, and that things will start to pick up as soon as the new year (when competition from the NFL has faded). When their stars return next year, the Warriors will likely be a relevant force in the league again. In the long run, the lack of player movement this year is actually a breath of fresh air, and in the long run it may help the league. It was always unrealistic to expect a superstar to change teams every year, and the league and fans would have to adapt to that. When the actual product being put forward for fans’ enjoyment becomes seen as secondary itself, it is never a healthy state of affairs for any sport. One hopes that there is still time for expectations to reset themselves, and that, by putting the spectacle of player movement first for too long, the NBA has not done itself too much damage to easily undo.

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Peter Cioth

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