Adam Silver: LeBron James moving west 'clearly' hurt NBA playoff ratings

Jack Baer
Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James appears on a television screen as he answers questions during media day at the NBA basketball team's practice facility Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, in El Segundo, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Missing LeBron James hasn't helped ratings for the NBA playoffs. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

With the Western Conference finals already over and the Eastern Conference finals already on Game 4, it’s getting hard to deny that the NBA is struggling in the ratings department.

Playoff ratings started out on a weak note and haven’t become much better thanks to a Milwaukee Bucks-Toronto Raptors series to decide the East. This all comes after a regular season of relatively low ratings and an All-Star Game watched by record-few fans.

Obviously, that is all of great concern for NBA commisioner Adam Silver. The NBA is widely seen as a growing league relative to its competitors, so what does it mean that fewer fans are tuning in to watch the league’s biggest stars?

Well, Silver pointed to just a single man as the cause of the ratings dip: Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James.

Is LeBron James’ Lakers move to blame for the NBA’s low ratings?

Speaking with the “Today Show”’s Craig Melvin in an interview released Tuesday, Silver touched on a number of topics, from Zion Williamson to the WNBA to mental health. The most eyebrow-raising comments came around the 20:13 mark, when Melvin brought up the dip in playoff ratings.

Silver bluntly explained that it was hard for the NBA to keep viewers around for an entire game when the league’s most famous player is on a team that both missed the playoffs and regularly begins games after 9 p.m. ET. He also pointed to the cord-cutting trend among younger consumers:

I think it was mainly in the early round. I mean, face it, LeBron is one of the biggest stars in the world, and he also played in the East. And so, the reason I look a little bit tired is a lot of our games are in the West, and it’s late at night. And I recognize most people choose to go to sleep at a reasonable time. And so, from a rating standpoint, not having LeBron in the playoffs, not having him in the East, has clearly impacted ratings. But I think generally, ratings have been great. They’re up now as we’re into the conference finals. The competition has been fantastic.

It is something over time, though, a lot of young people who are our core fans, I’m sure you see this in your business too, aren’t necessarily subscribing to cable and satellite the way they did historically, so that’s something we’re very focused on, but we have enormous confidence in our product.

Silver isn’t off the mark here, especially with the cord-cutting trend that has cost every sports league with games on cable.

The two best teams in the East have clearly been the Bucks and Raptors this year. Between those two teams, you have the smallest TV market in the East and a team with a TV market in a different country. It’s hard to think of a worse matchup for American rights-holders in a vacuum.

On the Western side, a combination of the Golden State Warriors’ dominance and the absence of James hasn’t been a help, either. Of course, the larger point might be that even if James were in the playoffs and taking the Warriors to Game 7 again, it wouldn’t help as much ratings-wise if those games were starting at 10 p.m. ET.

Adam Silver suggests NBA could move up West Coast game times

When pressed on that idea that a West Coast team dominating the league might not be “good for business,” Silver suggested West Coast game times could be moved up:

It’s not bad for business. I only say, sometimes I forget, 50 percent of television households in this country are in the Eastern time zone. And so if your West Coast games start at 10:30 at night in the East, you’re invariably going to lose a lot of viewers around 11, 11:30. I mean, you can just chart it. You see how many television households turn off around 11:15, 11:30 at night, just because people have to get up for work in the morning.

It is something we can address. We’re talking about it. I mean, it would obviously be less convenient to those fans on the West Coast if we played even earlier. Just think about people getting to those arenas after work if you start a game at 6 p.m. local time in the West. It’s not the most convenient thing. It’s not as convenient for a television watcher on the West Coast, either. But when you look at the league from a national standpoint, it may make sense to play a little bit earlier in the West. And that’s something we’re going to talk to our teams about this summer.

That idea probably sounds good for that 50 percent of East Coast fans who want to see LeBron James and the Warriors more often, but, as Silver mentions, it could be a tough sell for the local West Coast fan who wants to attend games and not have to leave work early to do so.

It boils down to whether the NBA values national ratings or local followings more, and the winds are likely blowing toward the former if fewer fans are tuning in.

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