The NBA’s ratings are in an inexplicable free fall after a brief player-led boycott last week.
Game 5 between the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers was the least viewed game of the entire series, drawing 2.92 million viewers.
Last year, a showdown between the Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs drew 3.49 million viewers in a comparable time slot.
The Lakers are consistently among the NBA’s most watched ball clubs and feature the league’s biggest star in LeBron James, so the fact that even they are swimming against a current of apparent disinterest is notable.
Moreover, in this case at least, the problem is not simply people cutting the cord or not watching TV. On the same day the Lakers and Blazers played Game 5, NASCAR’s race at Daytona drew 3.87 million viewers.
That same Saturday following the boycott, the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder played their Game 5. It drew 2.14 million viewers – down 30 percent from what the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors drew for their Game 1 in a comparable time slot last year.
The next day, the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks played Game 6 of their much-discussed series. Despite these two teams generating the most headlines of any in the first round of the NBA playoffs, their crucial game drew 2.32 million viewers – down five percent from the 2.43 million Game 5 drew pre-boycott.
Although it is debatable whether or not the boycott permanently hurt the NBA’s ratings or they were simply going to fall anyway, it is safe to say it probably didn’t help.
All in all, this year’s NBA Playoff ratings continue to be down 20 percent from last year.
NBA ratings and UFC ratings are going in opposite directions. https://t.co/a27KtwSo1D
— Game 7 (@game7__) August 26, 2020
NBA Ratings Were A Secondary Story Last Week
While NBA ratings intrigue is always a fun topic of conversation, the real story of last week was the spontaneous, player-launched boycott initiated by the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday, August 26.
That day, in response to the police shooting of 29-year-old Jacob Blake, the Bucks decided not to take the floor for their Game 5 showdown versus the Orlando Magic. The four teams involved in two other outings that day – the Rockets, Thunder, Blazers and Lakers – also opted not to play.
The same evening, players and coaches gathered to come up with a gameplan on how to proceed. By all accounts, their meeting was a tense one.
Udonis Haslem exchanged strong words with James. James came at the younger guys. Patrick Beverley went at Michele Roberts. Clippers head coach Doc Rivers had to play the role of mediator. All in all, nothing was resolved that night.
The next morning, a smaller consortium of players and owners met for a second meeting. At that point, a deal eventually got worked out and all parties agreed to proceed with the playoffs.
Chris Paul and Andre Iguodala were among those credited with really making the case for a continuation of play, ultimately saving the season.
Chris Paul stepped up and got his entire team registered to vote. The rest of the NBA has yet to follow suit. https://t.co/h6Rwh8yu53
— Game 7 (@game7__) August 28, 2020
LeBron James Came Out Looking Really Bad
One of the more fascinating tidbits to emerge from the entire boycott saga was how bad James looked throughout.
He was originally on the minority side of wanting to call off the NBA season when almost everyone else wanted to keep going. On top of that, a lot of players didn’t really appreciate the way he went about communicating his wants and needs.
“I’ve heard, first of all, that he was speaking out of pocket and was talking to the players in a fashion that really turned off some of these young cats off,” Stephen A. Smith said on ESPN last week.
“The younger generation of players were not having what they were hearing from LeBron James because the fashion in which he spoke to them. When he stormed out of there, I was told it was in part because of that — and he sort of came off like ‘I got mine, I don’t need this.’”
James also apparently did not earn himself any new fans the next day, at the meeting where everything was ultimately resolved.
“When everybody thought the meeting was over, LeBron James grabs the mic, and from what I’m told, talks for about 15 minutes, and he’s talking for about 15 minutes in a fashion that turned everybody off because they had already agreed to what they were going to do moving forward,” Smith continued.
“And he was talking about ‘the guys beneath me, I have to look out for the guys beneath me’ to the point where you have people saying, ‘What the hell you mean, beneath you?’
“Now they didn’t say that to him, but they certainly said it to people like myself, Woj and others who were covering that meeting. He came across as if he was the king with some crown and what have you, and it was a real, real turnoff.”
Many were left wondering in the aftermath if perhaps James’ bad attitude was the byproduct of him wanting to be the face of the boycott but none of the other players really viewing him that way.
Either way, James caught a lot of shrapnel. It remains to be seen if it will have any lasting impact on his reputation among players and fans alike.
Drugs are not cheap. https://t.co/lZhVrF0bbM
— Game 7 (@game7__) September 1, 2020
So What Does This All Mean For NBA Ratings?
Big picture, what do last week’s events mean for ratings? It is hard to say.
There are varying schools of thoughts as to why NBA ratings are down.
If one belongs to the camp of thinking it has to do with the league pushing political messaging too strongly, then presumably a high-profile, politically-charged boycott (albeit, a brief one) probably won’t help.
LeBron took a moment on Saturday night to reveal who he wishes was President. https://t.co/vPE3b4Dx6Z
— Game 7 (@game7__) August 30, 2020
However, there are also a lot of people out there who think the ratings decline has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with changing consumer habits. If that is the case, then the boycott likely will not have a significant impact.
The problem for the NBA is that no matter what school of thought you subscribe to, the end result is the same – ratings are down. And whether its because of politics or cord-cutting, there is no feasible scenario where either of those things change at any point in the foreseeable future.
At some point, the NBA will need to confront the fact that a league which absolutely owns the social media conversation daily can’t seem to convert any of those Twitter followers to actual viewers. Until a solution to that problem is found, the viewership numbers will likely continue to plunge.