It’s no secret that early season NBA ratings have been lower than in past years. This season, ratings have been down 15 percent among ESPN and TNT combined over last year and that is after early 2018-19 season ratings were down 26 percent on TNT compared to 2017.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver talked to the Washington Post and discussed the recent ratings dip. Despite the PR speak where Silver minimized discussing the bad by showcasing the good, Silver may have a point when he said that he is not only “not surprised” but “not concerned” as well.
“I’m not surprised that our ratings are down thus far,” Silver told The Washington Post by telephone from New York on Thursday. “I’m not concerned, either. In terms of every other key indicator that we look at that measures the popularity of the league, we’re up. We’re up in attendance over a record-setting high from last year. Social media engagement remains in the magnitude of 1.6 billion people on a global basis. Our League Pass viewership is up. Our merchandising sales are up. 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.”
It’s not a mystery what is needed to get big ratings. Last week, the Lakers and Bucks squared off and the combination of the East and West leaders playing each other along with the star power matchup of LeBron James vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo gave TNT its highest viewership this season since opening night. Games featuring great teams and matchups between the biggest stars of the NBA will drive ratings. And it might help if one of those teams is a historically popular team from a major market.
This season, the NBA has lacked some of those stars due to injuries. As the Washington Post notes, the NBA lost a viable ratings grabber in the Golden State Warriors. Last year’s NBA Finals runner-up took a hit with Kevin Durant leaving for the Nets and Klay Thompson being injured in the NBA Finals but Steph Curry is one of the most exciting players in the league so his star power should have been enough. That was until Curry broke his hand early in the season and the Warriors are now 7-24. Nobody really wants to watch that but they’re stuck on national TV.
Zion Williamson got the New Orleans Pelicans a team record 30 national games this season but with his knee injury that he suffered in the preseason, neutral fans don’t really have a reason to tune into a Pelicans game. In hindsight, giving the Warriors and Pelicans a bunch of national games was a bad decision, but in an alternate universe where Steph Curry and Zion Williamson were healthy, viewership wouldn’t be as bad as it is and might have been enough to make ratings higher than last year. The NBA made a bet and looking at viewership for Zion’s Duke games, it was a great bet at the time, but the NBA lost.
It also doesn’t help that many of the biggest stars are in the Western Conference and their games are usually on the back end of a national doubleheader. A game starting at 5 pm on the West Coast is definitely an inconvenience for West Coast viewers and I wouldn’t blame them if they want to have games take place in prime time but it’s more likely for those in the West to catch the end of the first game than those in the East staying awake for the end of the second game.
While so many things affecting ratings have been outside the NBA’s control, the league isn’t resting on their laurels. Silver called the pay-TV system “broken to a certain extent” a few weeks ago as the traditional means of accessing games on cable is getting less and less effective at bringing in younger fans. And in a sport whose fans are much younger than other “big four” sports, people like Mark Cuban are pointing out that cord cutting is going to hurt ratings for NBA games.
It remains to be seen if this dip is temporary or the beginning of a trend. Silver has reason to be optimistic as a series of unfortunate events has caused much of this decline but that doesn’t mean Silver should just rely on reversing bad luck to improve ratings. It makes sense to also have a plan and that’s what the NBA will be working on in the months to come.