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Chances are, if you care about the NBA's television ratings, you care about what you think those ratings say, and what you think those ratings say is probably wrong, so the entire exercise is a waste of your time.
The NBA is a multi-billion-dollar corporation doing just fine, no matter how much hand-wringing you want to do about social commentary from its players or the absence of big media markets in the conference finals.
It used to be that every so often the subject of ratings would arise when two smaller-market teams met late in the NBA playoffs. Think the San Antonio Spurs facing the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003 and 2007, respectively, the two lowest Finals ratings ever recorded before last year's bubble experiment.
A Twitter search of "Adam Silver" and "worst nightmare" provides countless examples of people presenting this year's four conference finalists — the Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks — as bad for the business of basketball, absent any discussion of the quality of basketball, as if somehow fans should be more concerned with the winner of a popularity contest than the sport itself.
More recently, ratings have become a political conversation piece. Former President Donald Trump repeatedly drew a line between the NBA's embrace of social justice movements and its ratings decline in 2020, without providing context created by the coronavirus. Games were often played midday, midsummer and eventually opposite the return of every other major sport in September and October, all while viewers were much more attuned to news of the pandemic and a presidential election that could further impact it.
"People are tired of watching the highly political NBA. Basketball ratings are WAY down, and they won’t be coming back," Trump tweeted on Sept. 1, around the same time he suggested three days of player-led protests of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, were "going to destroy basketball."
The politicization of the NBA's TV ratings
Trump is not unlike so many who draw grand conclusions from their own personal experiences. A month earlier, he claimed to have turned his television off once teams knelt together during the national anthem, so everyone else who was not watching the NBA this past August must have done so for similar reasons.
It is a narrative ripe with controversy that agenda-driven media outlets can leverage to their own advantage. They had plenty of experience with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose protest against social injustice elicited a response that birthed the politicization of television ratings. Instead of Kaepernick's quest for equality being one possible reason viewers turned off the NFL in 2016 and 2017, it was painted without context as the reason, only for ratings to recover and fall again during the pandemic.
Naturally, Outkick the Coverage founder Clay Travis hosted Trump on his Fox Sports Radio Show in August 2020, giving the former president a wide berth to conclude without question that "very nasty" and "very dumb" players protesting injustice, along with the NBA's business relationship with China — a pair of topics Travis' Outkick website have regularly mined for readership — primarily caused a ratings decline.
Just last month, Outkick's Bobby Burack wrote, "Each year that LeBron James waves a middle finger at half the country, viewers respond by turning the channel at a rate higher than the previous year," citing the NBA's 25% ratings decrease over the past two years for regular-season games across ABC, ESPN and TNT, and singling out the 2021 Preakness as evidence that "other sports have not suffered nearly as much."
Only, none of this has proven true. In fact, just the opposite. James and his Los Angeles Lakers' play-in win over the Golden State Warriors drew the league's highest rating since 2019. The NBA's national TV ratings for the first round of the playoffs were up nearly 50% from last year's equivalent and in line with 2019 data.
People came back, and basketball was not destroyed. Far from it.
"If there was any question whether last year's decline was primarily due to the bubble, the fan-less environment, the months-long delay, if there was any question as to whether or not that was true, it's been answered by the fact that the ratings for a postseason where Steph Curry didn't make it to the playoffs and LeBron didn't make it out of the first round are up dramatically from last year, just by default," Sports Media Watch's Jon Lewis, an expert on the subject, told Yahoo Sports. "It's obvious that 99% of why the ratings were so bad was because of the circumstances. Now, were there also people who tuned out because of seeing 'Black Lives Matter' on the court? Maybe, but I can tell you it's painfully obvious that last year's results were primarily because of being in the circumstances that the league found itself late last summer."
Consequences of a watered-down regular season
There are equally obvious answers for why the NBA's ratings suffered another decline in the regular season. A shortened offseason and condensed schedule led to increases in blowouts and either injuries or rest to prevent injuries, not to mention COVID-related interruptions. A watered-down product in empty arenas was inevitable, and still the NBA recovered through two rounds of a playoffs plagued by superstar absences.
The return of fans alone has improved the viewing experience, and two Game 7s in the Eastern Conference semifinals helped counterbalance mitigating factors. Six of the 10 NBA All-Star starters did not make it to the end of the second round, a seventh was swept, and Joel Embiid played on a partially torn meniscus.
Only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant were still healthy and playing, and their Bucks and Brooklyn Nets treated the NBA to a 6.9 rating that matched the percentage of TV homes tuned into Kawhi Leonard's iconic buzzer-beater for the Toronto Raptors in Game 7 of the 2019 conference semis. Sunday's Game 7 between the Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers was the NBA's second-highest-rated contest of these playoffs.
Early investment in a post-LeBron future
The NBA is not naive to the fact that Lakers-Nets would have been a huge ratings draw, but the rise of a new generation of stars, including Devin Booker and Trae Young, while initially a potential ratings hit, could also serve as a considerable investment in the future of the league. Young's Hawks, in particular, open the door to the league's seventh-largest media market, one that has been largely dormant for its existence. The Golden State Warriors were not the ratings darling they became until Curry built equity with the audience.
Lewis cites the Houston Rockets, who eventually became enough of a draw after two consecutive title runs that they bounced Michael Jordan's eventual 72-win Chicago Bulls from the 1995 Christmas Day slate. The NBA could theoretically leverage a handful of stars into driving ratings that two uber-popular stars once did.
Outside of the most unconventional seasons in the league's history, the ebbs of NBA ratings much more closely followed a decline in overall TV viewership, and that does not account for the unconventionality of this season. Millions did not cut cords because "Love Us" was stitched onto the backs of players' jerseys.
Quality basketball draws an audience, especially if you get seven games of it. The Suns and Bucks — favorites to meet in the Finals — might be the NBA's 11th- and 24th-largest media markets, but a competitive series from Booker and Antetokounmpo would still generate momentum, for various reasons, entering next season's presumed return to normal, laying the groundwork for the future of the business.
The NBA's TV market share just hit an all-time high
Even if you want to skew your read of declining ratings in the most negative light possible for the NBA, do we have bad news for you. Think of linear TV consumption as a pie chart, and while the overall size of the pie has been shrinking, the NBA's share of that pie will only continue to grow. Live coverage is increasingly becoming the primary reason to retain traditional TV, so sports and news are keeping cable networks afloat.
The viewership share for this year's playoffs — the percentage of people with TVs in use that are watching the NBA — is at its highest since the league first began logging that data during the 2002-03 season. The NBA also happens to feature the youngest audience across major sports, one advertisers covet. Even as ratings declined during the pandemic, the NBA secured business partnerships with at least nine major brands, including Hotels.com, CarMax, Clorox, Michelob Ultra, Oculus from Facebook and Microsoft.
"The NBA, as far as the demographics, that's where everything matters," said Lewis. "Phil Mickelson won the PGA Championship and comfortably beat Lakers-Suns Game 1 in total viewership, but guess what? That was only in 50+. That was Phil's demo. In every other demographic, including the ones advertisers care about most, [ages] 18-49 and 18-34, the NBA game won. The demographics are the story here. If demographics didn't matter, then Harry's Law would still be on with Kathy Bates. The fact is, people in advertising are looking for a specific demo, and the NBA does well in demos that advertisers care about."
Expectations are the NBA's next media rights deal will increase
Not only are networks increasingly desperate to retain their share of this pie, tech companies want a piece of it. Take the NHL, for example, which doubled its annual TV revenue from The Walt Disney Company with a first-of-its-kind deal signed in March that included 75 games broadcast solely on its ESPN+ over-the-top service. For perspective, the NBA's TNT crew broadcast only 64 games during this year's regular season.
That is why you have seen sourced reporting that anticipates a massive increase when the NBA's current media rights deal expires in 2025, like the one from CNBC's Jabari Young in March that set expectations at $75 billion — more than triple the existing package — even amid another regular-season ratings decline.
"The value is always rising. You have to think about what that means. What the ratings decline means isn't, 'Oh, my goodness, they're all going to go broke.' That's absurd," added Lewis. "What the ratings decline means is you're going to have to make some sacrifices to get as much money as you want to get. Those sacrifices aren't going to be paying players less. They're probably going to have to put some games on Peacock or ESPN+ or one of these platforms that networks are willing to overpay to get programming for."
Ratings are only a fraction of the NBA's audience
Armchair TV ratings experts often cast aside the nuances of an inherently flawed metric that is increasingly under fire (i.e., the exclusion of regional network simulcasts, and Nielsen only began including out-of-home viewership — an expected double-digit numbers increase — in October, when sports bars were mired in a pandemic), they also ignore the fact that TV ratings account for a fraction of the NBA's media consumption.
The NBA reaches a billion people in more than 215 countries across the world, and roughly three quarters of its viewers are outside the U.S., boosted by the popularity of Antetokounmpo, Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, four of the top six vote-getters in the MVP race. Global viewers on League Pass for the playoffs are up 18% from last year and 24% from 2019, per the NBA. None of them are included in Nielsen ratings.
Neither is the majority of the NBA's 56 million Instagram followers, an audience that generated 6.55 billion views and counts about twice the following of the NFL, NHL and MLB combined. The league is approaching 9 billion lifetime views on YouTube — again, almost as many as the three other major American sports leagues combined. Nearly 70% of the NBA's social media followers are outside the U.S.
Nielsen is expected to unveil a metric that better accounts for viewership across platforms in the coming years. Until then and before you consider caring about TV ratings, remember the NBA is garnering a greater share of the audience advertisers covet, and that does not include its massive global fan base — another demographic that tends to consume content in non-traditional ways. The NBA's brand is beyond healthy.
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