It’s a little weird that one of the biggest stories of the 2019–20 NBA season has been television ratings. Nielsen statistics should be about as relevant and interesting to basketball fans as Eukanuba’s quarterly financials are to a golden retriever, but it’s difficult to ignore news about the league’s precipitous slump. Compared with last year’s numbers, TNT and ESPN’s viewerships for national broadcasts are down 21 percent and 19 percent, respectively (as of Dec. 6). What’s really odd, though, is that this decline is happening now, when the sport’s biggest star is playing some of the best basketball of his career for a marquee major-market team.
It has been a full decade since you could call the Los Angeles Lakers legitimate championship contenders without lying, but the NBA’s most glamorous franchise is actually looking the part this season. At 22–3, they have the league’s best record, and LeBron James shrugged off last season’s rare playoff absence to return to form, which is to say he’s essentially solving basketball on a nightly basis now. His 25.8 points, 7 rebounds, and 10.8 assists per game would be a staggering stat line for anyone, let alone a guy who’s playing in his 17th professional season, and his unstoppable combination with Anthony Davis is a legitimate black swan event for the NBA. Seriously, we’ve never seen anything like a LeBron-AD pick and roll before. According to the ratings, a whole bunch of people aren’t seeing it now, either.
Two of the world’s best players conjuring telepathic basketball magic in the country’s second-largest city should be a dream scenario for the league, and yet commissioner Adam Silver finds himself answering questions about the falling ratings. At a Sports Business Journal conference last week, Silver blamed the cable-satellite model for the NBA’s woes. “That system is broken to a certain extent,” he said, adding that the overall decline in paying subscribers has had a direct impact on league viewership. “You’re really pushing a rock up a hill if you’ve lost 20 percent of your audience over the last four years … especially when that young audience we attract is disproportionately represented by that 20 percent.”
We’re veering into golden retriever reading pie charts territory here. Those whose job it is to care about these things have offered plenty of excuses for the ratings decline, be these related to cord-cutting, “load management,” or a dearth of Zion. But nothing short of total geosynchronous satellite failure can provide a satisfying explanation for why more people aren’t interested in watching a LeBron-led juggernaut lay waste to the Western Conference.
Granted, the Lakers have only appeared on ESPN and TNT six times so far this season. In strictly statistical terms, that sample size is small enough to have an excusably slight effect on ratings numbers, even if their games are doing relatively well in this regard (as was the case for the team’s season opener against the Clippers). While national ratings may be down, the Lakers’ home market certainly loves this iteration of its team. Spectrum SportsNet informed Slate that this season’s L.A.–area broadcasts “have recorded the network’s highest ratings across the board since the 2012–13 season,” citing a 24 percent increase in ratings from last year.
But the NBA counts on star players and dynasties to garner nationwide attention beyond local markets. Whether it’s Larry and Magic, Michael, or the Warriors raising the tide, the expectation has always been that they will lift all boats (even the ones captained by James Dolan). The Lakers are the obvious candidate to fill this void, but it hasn’t happened just yet.
It’s easy to formulate some possible reasons as to why this is. They were putrid last year even with LeBron, and their 37–45 record stunk bad enough to throw people off their dramatically improved scent. Anthony Davis is a once-in-a-generation–type talent, but he spent the first seven seasons of his career on the New Orleans Pelicans and only made two brief playoff appearances. His national profile has yet to catch up to his skill set, and it may take some time on a contender—and a deep postseason run—for casual fans to see that he plays like a tower crane that learned ballet. The Lakers are also a West Coast team, and they have yet to appear in a nationally televised game that tipped off before 9:30 p.m. Eastern Time. That excuse is the one Silver gave to explain last season’s decline in playoff viewership. “I recognize most people choose to go to sleep at a reasonable time,” he said on the Today show. “From a rating standpoint, not having LeBron in the playoffs, not having him in the East, has clearly impacted ratings.”
But those are all guesses. One thing we know for sure is that the Lakers are good as hell right now. If more and more people are to discover this fact as the season progresses, then this Friday would seem like a promising place to start. Los Angeles plays the Miami Heat, who have yet to lose at home, and their nationally televised game will tip off at the eminently reasonable hour of 8 p.m. EST. If Miami Beach of all places doesn’t feel the effects of a rising tide, then something might be seriously amiss.