The NBA is more popular than ever, but fewer and fewer people are actually watching the games. Even those who should be most interested in ratings are uninterested in watching games; ESPN analyst and NBA Hall of Famer Paul Pierce recently laughed at the idea of a second NBA bubble, explaining on his show, “The Jump,” that he was “not interested in watching” the bottom eight teams in the league play. Pierce’s comments highlight the ongoing issue of NBA media failing to market games properly.
The NBA’s ratings are crashing, down double-digits from a season ago. In an interview with The Washington Post in December, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said,“I’m not surprised that our ratings are down thus far,” continuing to explain that “the issue then, for me, is that we’re going through a transition in terms of how [the league] is distributed to our fans, particularly our young fans.”
Silver is correct that the NBA has a distribution problem, and this issue is specific to the NBA. Upon hearing ratings are down, some may point to “cord-cutting”, the growing movement away from cable toward streaming services, as the reason for this problem; however, other league’s ratings, such as the NFL’s, are up over the past few years. Furthermore, the NBA’s China controversy, which began in October when Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for protesters in Hong Kong, also fails to explain the ratings drop, as ratings had also dropped in the 2018-19 season.
This phenomenon is not something the NBA will be able to completely solve, but the media can certainly do more to alleviate it. Given the nature of basketball, with few players on the court, no league is more driven by its star players. Fans will watch games and buy tickets just to see one star player.
The NBA relies on its stars to fuel its ratings. In his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers, the league’s biggest star, LeBron James, failed to make the finals for the first time in nine years. James draws such a large audience that the NBA Finals ratings were down 24% last season without James’s presence. The NBA understands the impact of James’ and others’ star power, but there is little the league can do to avoid the occasional season when they miss the finals or sit out games because of injury.
Basketball is built for the age of social media. Despite not being America’s most popular sport, the NBA dominates social media. Today, the NBA has 49.3 million followers on Instagram; the NFL, MLB and NHL combined have just 28.9 million followers on Instagram. The plethora of highlights in every single game from both the best and the worst teams drives social media content. Similarly, the NBA’s stars dwarf all other American athletes on social media. James has a whopping 70.1 million followers on Instagram. The NFL’s most-followed player, Cleveland Browns’ receiver Odell Beckham Jr., has just 14.1 million followers and no current player in the MLB has more than 2 million followers. The power of social media in the NBA is unlike in any other American sport.
This social media presence may be what Silver is discussing when he talks about how the league is distributed. Young fans do not feel a need to tune into games when they can just see the highlights on social media later. This sentiment would also explain why the NBA’s merchandise sales continue to grow despite the drop in ratings. Fans can follow their favorite players without ever actually watching them play, buying jerseys based solely on highlights from social media.
The NBA needs to make fans care about regular-season games in order to help boost ratings. Not only are television personalities damaging the product by saying games are too boring for them to watch, but analysts like Colin Cowherd are fueling the idea that the regular season does not matter. Can anyone reasonably expect fans to tune into games after they just spent all week hearing about how they do not matter and are too boring even for analysts to watch?
The NBA media needs to build up excitement for regular-season games, not dismiss them as boring and meaningless. Most NBA teams have stars, even if they are subpar teams. The media should be building excitement around watching players like Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young and Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl Anthony-Towns, who, despite playing on some of the worst teams in the league, are two of the most entertaining and exciting young players the league has to offer. Beyond just the star players, analysts like Pierce should be building excitement around these games regardless of the matchup to showcase the NBA as more than just a few head-to-heads between the league’s top teams.
Basketball is more than just a collection of highlights and playoff games. Social media may always limit the attention young fans give to full NBA games, but the media can do better than actively driving away interest from the games they are hired to discuss.