NBA ratings and NFL ratings are trending in the same direction these days.
Although talk of how football dominates basketball in the ratings isn’t necessarily wrong, it does not speak to where the numbers for both sports are veering.
While Week 3’s full ratings aren’t in yet, through the first two weeks of the season the NFL’s TV audience is down 6.5 percent. The NBA’s decline is more pronounced, with ratings for this year’s playoffs down by as much as 40 percent for certain outings.
The NFL’s average audience for Week 1 was 16.2 million – down 8 percent from last year. Week 2 saw the average dip to 14.8 million, but that actually resulted in a smaller year-over-year decline of 5 percent.
No matter how you spin the numbers, though – the NFL’s ratings numbers are not heading upwards. Over the past two years the league has done an admirable job fixing the mistakes that led to a 10 percent viewer decline in 2017, but it appears that is now over.
Things are not going much better for the NBA.
Last week’s Western Conference showdown between the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets fell a staggering 41 percent from a comparable outing between the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers in 2019.
The Eastern Conference Finals dealt with a similar problem.
Last Wednesday’s showdown between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics averaged 4.48 million viewers. That number was down 15 percent from a comparable game between the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors in 2019, and 44 percent from a Cleveland Cavaliers and Celtics showdown from 2018.
Game 5 on Friday night, somehow, did even worse than Game 4 – with 4.37 million viewers.
Earlier in the Eastern Conference Finals, Game 2 between the Heat and Celtics recorded the lowest total for a Conference Finals outing since 2003, when the New Jersey Nets and Detroit Pistons averaged 2.72 million for Game 4 of their series.
Fans deserve the truth. https://t.co/RiUv9jc7V4
— Game 7 (@game7__) September 28, 2020
All of which is to say, both the NFL and the NBA are struggling when it comes to ratings. It is not a one sport or one league issue – although basketball is definitely getting hit harder than football.
As far as what is responsible for the decline – there are several theories on that.
Some believe this all boils down to consumption habits. People are streaming more – both legally and illegally – and watching TV less.
Others think this is a political issue. Both the NBA and NFL have been very vocal as it pertains to social justice issues over the past few months. Critics suggest that this is a turn off to potential viewers.
Although the latter idea is considered sacrilege in some corners of Twitter, it is not baseless.
A survey recently conducted by the Harris Poll attempted to get to the bottom of the ratings decline by polling 2,000 people.
“The league has become too political” was the top voter getter as far as reasons why people are tuning out, taking in 38 percent of the vote.
In second place came “Boring without fans,” which captured 28 percent of the vote.
Finally, “China” came in third place, with 28 percent of the vote.
Not surprising. https://t.co/WLcM4GhrSH
— Game 7 (@game7__) September 28, 2020
The most likely explanation is that a combination of factors are contributing to this decline for both the NBA and NFL.
What makes the whole situation interesting is that media rights have become a major revenue driver for all parties involved. There are billions of dollars on the line.
The NFL’s media deals expire within the next two years. As recently as 2019, future projections were notably higher than they are now.
Meanwhile, in 2014, ESPN and TNT signed a nine-year deal to broadcast NBA games that was worth $2.66 billion per year. Networks want to see a return on that investment, and that is hard to do when ratings are plummeting.
One way or another, the commissioners of these leagues are going to need to figure out what the problems are. And once they do, they better fix them.
If they don’t, then everyone – teams, players, owners and leagues – will all end up paying a steep price.