NBA television ratings plummet

These days, televised sports on Christmas center on the NBA. Five of its games were shown today. College football took the day off. So did big time soccer. There were a few college basketball games on television, but none of note.

For me, this nearly meant a day off from watching sports on the tube. I caught only the last ten minutes of the NBA’s marquee game between the Clippers and the Lakers.

I find it difficult to watch NBA games. Modern statistical analysis is to blame. It demonstrates that the most worthwhile basketball shots are three-pointers and attempts from five feet in or less. The mid-range shot is a low percentage endeavor.

This analysis lessens the significance of formerly vital and highly interesting areas of the court. In doing so, it makes the game less interesting to me.

Offensive patterns become simplified. Pick-and-pops are the order of the day, accompanied by much more long range shooting than I enjoy. (We see something similar in baseball, where modern statistical analysis highlights the importance of home runs and, for pitchers, strikeouts, while downplaying the importance of base running and putting the ball in play. Less action than before occurs on the base paths and in areas where singles used to be hunted, and the overall excitement of the game is reduced.)

My dim view of NBA play is not typical among sports fans. The modern NBA is extremely popular, especially among young and early middle age folks.

Nonetheless, the NBA is being watched much less on TV this year than it was last year. Viewership is down by a remarkable 15 percent so far this season.

Why? It can’t be due to grievances about style of play. I don’t believe the style of play has changed appreciably from last year.

This article in the Washington Post cites several factors that likely are contributing to plummeting NBA ratings. “Cord cutting,” injuries to high profile players like Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Zion Williamson (to a much greater degree than other major sports, the NBA is a star-driven league), and too many marquee matchups occurring on the West Coast and thus late at night in the Eastern Time Zone.

Is there also a political factor? When the NFL’s television ratings took a hit several years ago, there was good reason to think it had something to do with the controversy over players kneeling during the National Anthem.

The NBA had its own political controversy this summer, when the NBA kowtowed shamelessly to Red China following the tweet of a Houston Rockets executive expressing support for Hong Kong protesters. The controversy is expected to inflict a reduction in revenue from the NBA’s Chinese market. Has it also hurt the league’s standing with U.S. fans?

The NBA’s fan base differs materially from the NFL’s. Pro basketball’s base of support is much younger and left-liberal leaning.

Even so, I assume there are many within the NBA’s fan base who disapprove of China and its treatment of Hong Kong protesters. The left’s sudden obsession with Russia doesn’t preclude some residual dislike of Chinese totalitarianism.

The NBA must also have its share of conservative fans. Until a few years ago, I was one of them.

So, yes, I think the kowtowing to China probably is one factor in the NBA’s declining television ratings. If so, that’s probably good news for the league. In time, the matter will likely blow over, barring something new to fuel it.

The NFL’s television ratings have recovered. The NBA’s ratings might well recover too. Right now, I don’t think we understand enough about the causes of the sudden decline to say, with confidence, much more than that.