The changing viewing dynamic of the NBA

Michael Caruso, Senior Writer

In recent years, the NBA has stretched its reach throughout the globe thanks to social media, new and improved streaming platforms, and the increase of younger international stars joining the league. However, while there is an array of talent and constant action, the NBA is actually seeing a sharp decline in viewership on some of its main networks, such as ESPN and TNT. In fact, in December of 2019, ratings were down 15 percent compared to the year before.

Within the first two months of the NBA season, numerous prime time games failed to reach one million viewers, which is a common benchmark for successful ratings. Yet in the NFL, which offers their games on broadcast television, ratings were up from the previous season. So what could be the issue if the NBA is seen as such a global platform for basketball?

“I’m not surprised that our ratings are down thus far,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said to The Washington Post. “I’m not concerned, either. In terms of every other key indicator that we look at that measures the popularity of the league, we’re up. We’re up in attendance over a record-setting high from last year. Social media engagement remains in the magnitude of 1.6 billion people on a global basis. Our League Pass viewership is up. Our merchandising sales are up. The issue then, for me, is that we’re going through a transition in terms of how (the league) is distributed to our fans, particularly our young fans.”

With particular drawbacks in NBA culture, such as the Golden State Warriors — who are a key contributor to ratings — losing Kevin Durant in a trade and Klay Thompson and Steph Curry to injury, and number one draft choice Zion Williamson injuring his knee, pivotal players’ absences are causing networks to air games with less talent than usual. “Load management” then comes into play in the hopes of resting players to prevent further injuries, but Silver instituted a policy preventing resting players during nationally televised games.

The NBA currently has the youngest average viewer out of all four of the major sports leagues, yet few of their games appear on broadcast TV. Further, young fans are starting to cancel their cable subscriptions and viewership among current cable subscribers between the 18-34 year old demographic has declined 49 percent overall over the past four years. Because of this, the NBA should reduce its reliance on cable television and put more of an emphasis on streaming platforms. However, this may prove to be difficult, as the NBA signed a nine-year $24 billion rights deal with ESPN and Turner.

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