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NBA Games Have Fewer Fans Watching on Linear TV, But Does That Matter?

In late December, the Wall Street Journal’s Ben Mullin shared data around the ratings downturn for the NBA during the 2019-20 season. In short, much of the issue was chalked up to a rash of injuries to star players this year, though he also included remarks from league commissioner Adam Silver around TV audiences. Silver recently noted that the pay-TV system was “broken,” emphasizing the need to focus on other platforms to reach fans.

That latter focus has been the NBA’s forte for upwards of a decade now as they’ve worked with (broadcast partner) Turner on creating a powerful digital product. For some time now, fans have been able to customize how they subscribe to NBA League Pass, the subscription service that provides access to out-of-market games. Fans can also stream games across various platforms — and those audience numbers aren’t necessarily captured in conversations about ratings.

Adding to that, the NBA has also utilized social media better than any other league in U.S. sports — and perhaps internationally, as well. Miss a game? The NBA and its teams are serving you top highlights. Watching in real-time? #NBATwitter’s legion of fans, writers, players and digital personalities are watching along with you, as the Washington Post discussed in 2018.

The NBA’s fans are younger, more diverse and more technologically savvy than fans of the other “Big Four” sports leagues in the U.S. (NFL, MLB, NHL), and they’re watching in ways that aren’t captured by linear TV ratings. So as Silver himself seemed to challenge, why should we only be relying on traditional metrics to define a non-traditional audience? It’s also an audience that’s not just watching from couches in the U.S. and Canada (the two countries where its teams reside). NBA fans are tuning in from all corners of the globe, on countless devices. What other U.S.-based league can really say that at the same scale?

Interestingly, however, is how this dip in ratings does seem to be coinciding with some long-standing factors — and not just injuries. Since Michael Jordan’s second Chicago Bulls retirement (1999), the NBA’s talent has largely shifted to the Western Conference, and in turn, the league’s base of power has followed.

Aside from the brief run for Boston Celtics’ “Big Three” of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and the Miami Heat superteam led by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the NBA has seen its best teams largely reside in the West. Since the aforementioned Jordan retirement, 14 of 21 champs have come from the West, as have its three most successful dynasties (the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors).

So what’s the big deal? Well… West Coast tip-offs are typically on later, and that’s not necessarily ideal to reach the eyeballs of the numerous population centers of the Eastern Time Zone (estimated to be around 47% of the entire United States population). It’s not that East Coast fans aren’t watching their teams. They are! But you’re not necessarily picking up unaffiliated or casual fans for the 7 p.m. ET Charlotte Hornets vs. Atlanta Hawks game. Meanwhile, the 10:30 p.m. ET start for the Utah Jazz visiting the Lakers? They’re there, but only in one part of the country.

Acknowledging that the NBA has digital fandom accounted for, and knows how to grow it better than most, the question now more revolves around how they deal with the time zone issue given the talent migration West. You can’t necessarily put West Coast games earlier. That means half-empty arenas in cities like L.A. and San Francisco. But there are ways to potentially get a bit more creative about how to place primetime games and big Western Conference matchups. Flex schedules are a potential fix.

The league’s recent ideas around generating excitement via a mid-season tournament could be another.

It’s far from a sure thing to be implemented, and the logistics on how to actually make any sort of mid-season (similar to what international soccer has) event financially viable remain in question. Among the biggest issues under consideration: putting too much mileage on players during the regular season, motivation, financial incentives and arena logistics. But would the event probably draw a lot of TV eyeballs regardless of which coast the games are played on? Given how entertaining the NBA’s product is at its height (the later rounds of the postseason), it seems probable.

Ultimately, the NBA has been willing to be more creative than its peers, and as long as they continue to do so, the league seems poised to keep a good deal of audience share as how people watch games continues to evolve. That’s not something you can necessarily quantify at this moment. But the momentum is clearly there if you’re an NBA fan — which is likely what matters most.