If anyone can find the 45% of the NBA's national viewing audience that has disappeared in the last 8 years, call the league office. That's right, almost half the audience that watched a nationally televised regular season game on ABC from 2011-12 no longer watch. Why? And should the NBA be concerned.
The Athletic's Ethan Strauss writes the league drew an average of 5.45 million viewers for a regular season game eight years ago. This season that number has shrunk to 2.95m for games on ABC. That is still larger than most college football games. In fact, only five games drew a larger viewing audience for college football on television.
But the NBA has a problem when it comes to a sinking audience. The league is quick to point out its ratings in the younger demographics are strong and boast about its digital numbers and how many are watching on their phones or engaged on social media. That data is correct in that it is trending up but the significant drop in viewers is alarming.
Strauss writes that no other pro league has seen any type of drop like the NBA. MLB and the NFL are flat over the last eight seasons. The NFL is averaging 16.5 million viewers for a televised game and the NBA Finals audience is a shell of what a regular season game on FOX at 4:35 or Sunday Night Football on NBC.
Why? Are viewers turned off by a lack of stars in the east? Maybe. LeBron has now moved west and the Warriors saw most of their games on late versus a prime time slot. Has the league turned fans off with its social position on issues? I am not sure anyone could argue no. We are a divided country and recent stories about China and Hong Kong along with George Floyd and the league's messaging has clearly hit a button with fans.
The NBA is a global business and has put itself in a position to be criticized for its position on China while human rights stories are in the forefront of the news. And as Strauss writes, the racial injustice messaging by players has come across, at times, confusing.
The NBA is great at social media and those who cover the game give an appearance that "everyone" is watching based on twitter mentions and reactions. But the reality is twitter is not the real world. Whether it is a lack of rivalries, load management, big market teams not being very good- the league appears to be at a place we often talk about when it comes to a 7th or 8th seed(see the Magic). Stuck and struggling to move up the standings.
Two issues I have felt the NBA has struggled with in the last decade: overexposure of its stars and few teams with a chance to win. The beauty of the NFL is that it happens 16 times a season. 82 games in the NBA is a long year and every team has every game televised. Just because your team has a game on ABC doesn't really make it a bigger game since you can watch your team every time they play. Second, every season the audience sees that 4-5 times at the most have a chance to win the title. In the NFL, there may be favorites but more people believe their team has a chance than in the NBA.
Ratings for the Finals remain decent. Last season, just over 15 million viewers on average watched the Raptors and Warriors play. That number was over 20m in 2017. Just to compare, the NFC Championship game on Fox last season drew 44 million viewers.
The NBA does not lack stars. The depth of great players is as good as its ever been. Maybe social media makes them too human for us. Maybe it's a cycle and the NBA will recapture its 45%. But I doubt it. Don't get me wrong. I love the NBA, not all about it. But the league has its challenges and getting back its viewers for its biggest games might be a battle they cannot win.
Final thought: The first Cracker Barrel opened in 1969 in Lebanon, Tennessee. Dan Evins was a sales rep for Shell Gasoline. He had an idea that a restaurant/gift shop destination might increase gasoline sales.
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