As the NBA continues to struggle to attract the sort of viewership it had last year, the UFC is seeing the opposite happen.
Despite meaningful postseason basketball being played on a daily basis, NBA Playoff viewership has dropped from 2.39 million average viewers in 2019 to 1.68 million in 2020. That is a 30 percent decline.
Meanwhile, the UFC’s four preliminary cards since the promotion returned from its COVID-inspired hiatus have done an average of 1.17 million viewers across ESPN and ESPN+. That number is up 30 percent from what pay-per-view preliminary cards did in 2019.
Mind you, UFC pay-per-view preliminary cards largely feature unknown or past-their-prime talents. It is unsurprising that, on average, NBA Playoff games would draw more viewers. What is significant, however, is the fact that average UFC ratings are trending upwards at a time when the NBA’s are trending downward.
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NBA Ratings Decline Is Baffling
When the sports apocalypse hit back in mid-March, most leagues delayed play until some clarity regarding COVID-19 could emerge. Popular wisdom at the time was that when sports did return, they would do massive figures.
Fast forward five months and that prediction hasn’t quite played out.
The NBA is one of the most popular sports leagues around on social media. Its content inundates Twitter and Instagram. And yet despite its seemingly undeniable place in the public’s consciousness, the ratings continue to plummet.
Last week, Game 2 between the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers did 2.28 million viewers. That number is down 18 percent from what the Clippers did against the Golden State Warriors in 2019.
If you want to assume that it was the Warriors that were responsible for the higher number – throw that game out. Last year’s Utah Jazz vs Houston Rockets showdown still did 11 percent better in viewership than Mavericks-Clippers.
Mavericks-Clippers has been arguably the most interesting series in the entire first round of the playoffs. The fact that it is being outdrawn regularly by significantly worse games from 2019 is telling.
Nobody was more excited on Sunday than Luka’s mom. https://t.co/TXIDqI69CQ
— Game 7 (@game7__) August 24, 2020
The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers played a far less competitive series, but their ratings follow a similar blueprint. Game 2 between Boston and Philly did 1.71 million viewers. That is 40 percent lower than what the Brooklyn Nets and Sixers did in the same time period in 2019.
By any objective measure, the NBA’s ratings are experiencing a lull that cannot be easily explained.
UFC Ratings Increase Is Surprising
The only thing more unexpected than the fact that NBA ratings keep dropping is the UFC’s impressive ratings spike.
The UFC has held four pay-per-views since its big return. UFC 249 in May, UFC 250 in June, UFC 251 in July and UFC 252 in August. While the pay-per-views themselves are obviously, well, pay-per-views, the prelims for them air on ESPN and its streaming channel ESPN+.
The preliminary cards for those four events averaged 1.173 million viewers. That number is up from the roughly 900,000 average viewers the UFC was doing on its prelims in 2019.
What Is Behind These Ratings Shifts?
There are a lot of things that go into TV viewership. Overall, ratings are down across the board for many shows and sporting events. Some of it is due to cord-cutting and scheduling times, no doubt. Part of it is probably a reflection on the on-air products.
That said, it becomes a lot harder to excuse away the NBA’s consistent ratings declines when a fight promotion that regularly hides its most notable stars from free TV is seeing its ratings go the other way.
Yes, the NBA’s ratings are going down in a time when many others are experiencing drops. But not everybody. Not the UFC.
At a certain point, maybe at the end of this season, NBA executives are going to need to have an honest conversation regarding why there is such a massive disparity between how much people talk about their league and how much people actually watch it.
The problem isn’t just cord-cutting. It is bigger than that. And the sooner the NBA figures out what it is, the sooner it will be able to fix it.