Story at a glance
- Nearly 40 percent of respondents in a new Harris poll said they were watching less basketball because “the league has become too political.”
- But ratings had dropped even before the NBA took a hiatus in March and have grown since the league resumed play.
- Still, the league has been facing declining viewership over recent years.
The NBA has a ratings problem — it has for a while. Ratings for the first round of playoffs were down 27 percent from last season, according to reported Nielsen ratings, and down 40 percent from two years ago.
And President Trump thinks he knows why.
People are tired of watching the highly political @NBA. Basketball ratings are WAY down, and they won’t be coming back. I hope football and baseball are watching and learning because the same thing will be happening to them. Stand tall for our Country and our Flag!!!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 1, 2020
A Harris poll seemed to back his claims, reporting that 38 percent of nearly 2,000 people chose “The league has become too political” when given 10 choices on why they are watching less basketball. “Boring without fans” said another 28 percent, while 19 percent said it was the NBA’s association with China.
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It’s hard to say what political means though. The poll also found 34 percent of Republicans say they “actively follow” the NBA, compared with 48 percent of Democrats — the largest such gap in any sport. And some say the poll doesn’t tell the whole story.
“There is no proper context to compare the current NBA viewership post-COVID to any regular season,” Tom McGovern, president of Omnicom Group’s sports media division Optimum Sports, told Variety. “You’ve got an increased number of broadcast windows and start times that are an anomaly for this current season. The number of windows alone is going to dilute your average rating, you’ll have no West Coast prime time.”
Even before the coronavirus pandemic reached the United States and George Floyd’s death inspired protests across the nation, the NBA was in trouble. National television viewership had fallen 12 percent in February since the end of the season compared to the 2018-19 season, according to a report from Sports Business Daily.
While it may be smaller than previous years, the NBA has seen about an 80 percent larger prime-time audience since its July 30 restart than it did prior to suspending its season on March 11, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Nielsen data. And the poll found that those watching less basketball — 39 percent — are still in the minority: 32 percent of fans are actually consuming more basketball this summer, while 28 percent are watching the same amount.
There are practical conflicts as well, including scheduling games on just three courts that need to be fully sanitized due to the threat of coronavirus infection, even within the NBA’s bubble. And summer viewership is traditionally lower than spring, when the NBA playoffs are typically held.
“The challenge is comparing apples to oranges on the NBA postseason last year and now, in the bubble,” Patrick Crakes, a sports media consultant, told the WSJ. “The teams are losing prime-time windows, and daytime games are during lower usage time periods.”
Whatever the case may be, the NBA continues to double down on its commitment to social justice causes after pausing play following the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
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