Why Are the NBA’s Ratings Going Down?

Is it the bubble? Fallout from the China controversy? Something else?

LeBron drives on Carmelo in the Lakers-Blazers series
Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James in Game 3 of the first round of the NBA playoffs on Sunday at the AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Kim Klement/Pool/Getty Images

In a piece published in the Athletic last week, Ethan Strauss reported that the ratings for network NBA broadcasts have declined by 45 percent since 2011–12. Games on TNT are also down by more than 40 percent, while ESPN’s ratings have gone down roughly 20 percent. And despite predictions that ratings for the league’s “bubble” games would soar, they’ve actually been lower than those for pre-bubble games. “Big trends tend to result from multiple factors,” Strauss wrote. Among the ones he cited: that players, coaches, and broadcasters have been highly critical of the United States and its government while remaining mostly silent about China.

On this week’s episode of Hang Up and Listen, I spoke with Strauss about the ratings decline, what evidence he sees that politics are a factor, and whether criticism of the NBA’s stance on China is sincere. A portion of our conversation is transcribed below; it has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Josh Levin: You’ve categorized explanations for why the ratings are down as excuses, so let me know if this is an explanation or an excuse. The NBA audience is younger than in some of the other sports that you’ve cited, and also more nonwhite than for other sports you’ve cited.

Ethan Strauss: I think there’s an element of explanation where younger people like the NBA, but the liking of the NBA doesn’t necessarily translate into them sitting down and watching two hours of an NBA game. If the NBA can figure out a way to make money off people enjoying seeing highlights over YouTube or highlights over Twitter, then, you know, good for you. It just doesn’t seem like they’ve been really able to do that.

I think it’s basic, it’s Occam’s razor. The interest in your sport is represented by people sitting down and watching your sport. That’s what it is.

If you look at Gallup surveys, the NBA doesn’t appear to be declining in popularity. If you look at “What is your favorite sport to watch?” it’s been flat over the last 15 years. If you look at people saying whether they’re a fan of that sport or not, interest in the NBA has gone up in recent years. So if Occam’s razor is that the NBA is declining in popularity domestically, then how do you explain the fact that on this metric of literally whether the NBA is more or less popular, it seems to either be flat or increasingly popular?

Is the metric what you do with your remote control, or is the metric what you say to Gallup? I mean, I think the quick and dirty measurement is whether you’re willing to watch the sport.

I mean, they’re down nearly half their viewership. Like, what are we doing? Why are we avoiding this? That’s what I don’t understand. Why are we avoiding this? You lost nearly half your audience in eight years. We’re going to talk about a Gallup survey. That just seems kind of ridiculous to me.

Would you rather be the NFL, where you have this huge TV audience, but there are also existential questions about whether the sport can exist?

If we’re just talking about pure profit, pure moneymaking, then yes, I think you would rather be the NFL. Now, do I want to morally be presiding over the NFL? That’s a different question. But as far as how entrenched they are in American culture and how much money they’re making and how much interest there is—I think it was over 15 million people watched the NFL draft. Yeah, they are at a starting position that is, I think, more secure than the NBA’s.

You mentioned some theories in your most recent piece about why ratings could be down. And you said the thorniest one is “the political component.” The theory is that some segment of viewers might be turned off because of things players say off the court, or the social justice messages on their jerseys. The fact that they’re not talking about China when they’re talking about Black Lives Matter. What is the argument, or what is the evidence, that this is causing a decline in viewership?

I think it’s completely obvious to people who aren’t in the bubble. You have your most precipitous drop this last year after [the NBA’s response to Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s comments about] China. I mean an absolute free fall, where you’re losing double digits on the national ratings, double digits on the local ratings. And yeah, maybe you’re never going to be able to prove it to a T that it had something to with China, but that is when the NBA is hitting the news for people who are not necessarily completely engaged. And I think that when you talk to a lot of people who aren’t within media, people maybe where their politics don’t line up 100 percent with what’s being evinced, yeah, a lot of people are turned off by it.

I think that it doesn’t take a lot of imagination, really. I feel like I’m being put in the position in a way of just explaining the obvious, that gravity exists. And I guess I would say to you, why wouldn’t it have an impact?

I doubt that people who claim to be very upset about the NBA’s stance on China are actually upset about the NBA’s stance on China. Considering, for instance, that Trump failed to respond to the coronavirus in a timely way because he said that he didn’t want to piss off China because they were working on some great trade deals. I don’t see any evidence that people who are big Trump fans before that now really hate Trump because he wasn’t hard enough on China.

The component is a little more complicated than that. It’s the idea that people within the NBA are criticizing the United States—which, many of the criticisms are on point, many of the criticisms can be agreed with—but that they will not do any criticism at all of China because of the business relationship. I think that’s a fairly obvious hypocrisy that people can understand. They don’t have to be MAGA-heads to necessarily see it and be put off by it.

You’re saying there’s no evidence. I think the evidence is the decline. I would, again, ask for the people who find it so hard to believe: Why? Why would it be so hard to believe that? I think it’s fairly easy to believe.

It’s reminiscent to me of the conversation around NFL ratings going down during the Colin Kaepernick kneeling controversy, and that being attributed to Kaepernick when at the same time ratings for NASCAR were going way down. You could look at ratings for NASCAR going down, if you didn’t know anything about NASCAR, and be like, “Well, they must be protesting. There must be people pissed off about these drivers talking about social justice.”

Yeah, but then does that prove that it can’t be true for football? Because I believe that that particular story tracked with the ratings going down, and then the NFL did something draconian to stop the kneeling, and then the ratings went back up again. It’s not inconceivable to me that the people who say they’re pissed off by that kind of thing are pissed off by that kind of thing. I am not. I don’t care. Kneel away, that’s fine by me. But there seems to be a population of people who actually do give a shit.

I don’t deny that it’s possible that what you’re saying is true. What I’m saying is that I don’t think that you saying that it’s obvious means that it’s obvious.

Well, what do you think the truth is? What do you think the truth is then?

This season is a really challenging one to make any conclusions from, just because it’s so unusual. It’s games being played at a time they’ve never been played before in a world in which people’s lives have been, like, totally thrown into disarray.

But what does that have to do with the pre-pandemic drop?

You’re saying that there are a lot of small things that don’t matter, or that don’t explain the drop. Maybe if you add up a bunch of small things, that gets you some of the distance there. If you add up the fact that the league has this younger demographic of fans that’s going to be more predisposed to cord-cutting. If you add in the fact that we’re in a sort of generational shift in the NBA. If you add in the fact that a lot of the star power in the league is in the West. If you add in the fact that Zion Williamson was hurt all year. If you add in all of these other factors, maybe it doesn’t get you all the way up to 45 percent, but it gets you some distance of the way there.

Yeah. I would agree that there’s sort of this gestalt issue that the NBA has, and that they’ve got multiple factors. When people bring up NBA, the word cloud that pops up is a bunch of positive things and a bunch of exciting things, and also it’s, “Well, you know, you’ve got the China issue, and there’s also the load management, and the guys change teams every year.” I wouldn’t deny any of those factors. I just think that there seems to be a taboo against acknowledging certain factors versus acknowledging other factors.

Do you feel like it’s fair to separate out league executives versus players when it comes to responsibility to talking about China? Because this is a league where Thabo Sefolosha and Sterling Brown have both been victims of police brutality, where this video just came out of Masai Ujiri being assaulted by a law enforcement official at the moment of greatest triumph for him and his team. These are issues that affect the players, the predominantly Black league—it affects them, it affects their families. Doesn’t it make sense for people in this community to be focused on that and not to expect them to include China in every statement that they’re making? Whereas maybe we would expect the commissioner and executives from these teams to speak more strongly, and not support having a training camp at a place where Uighurs are getting detained.

I think it makes sense for people to discuss matters that are close to their heart, that are influencing their communities, I certainly wouldn’t tell them not to, but there are players who make a tremendous amount of money off of business with China, specifically. I mean, the superstar players go there every offseason and do a tour of the country, which is why it was so funny to hear so many people in the NBA saying, “It’s far away. It’s over there. We don’t know anything about it.” There is an intense connection. It was 15 percent of the BRI [basketball-related income] that pays players. I don’t think that anybody should be left off the hook in the league vis-à-vis their business with China.

And I think you’re erecting a bit of a straw man saying that they should talk about it all the time. They’ve completely run from it. They don’t talk about it ever. I think maybe something in between would make a little more sense. And if they don’t want to do it, they don’t want to do it. I’m not the moral arbiter of the NBA. If they want to continue to conduct business with China and not ever talk honestly about the other rival superpower in the world, that’s their prerogative, but it appears to have a domestic cost in the United States that’s fairly intuitive.

I do think it’s fair to criticize players who are making a lot of money from China for not saying anything. That seems reasonable. I don’t think that’s everybody in the league.

Well, everybody is making money, but kind of in an indirect way, because it’s part of the BRI. But certainly some players are bigger reapers of rewards through the sneaker companies. That’s certainly true.

What I think about the China stuff is that the people who claim to have stopped watching the league because of it would not be fans of the NBA if everyone was saying exactly what they wanted them to say about China—that they would find another reason to be mad at the NBA. Do you think that Ted Cruz would be happy with what the NBA is doing right now if they were saying everything that Ted Cruz wants them to say about China?

Oh, there’s undoubtedly a cohort that is bashing the NBA with China because it’s convenient and they never liked the NBA in the first place. Yeah, there are some people that don’t care about the Uighurs and they don’t care about Hong Kong, and they’re only pretending to because they also don’t care about the NBA, and they like attacking the NBA. But within all of that, there’s also a cohort, there’s also a contingent that’s legitimately put off.

Michael Jordan was criticized for not speaking out about sweatshop labor conditions with Nike and how his shoes were being made in Asia. But I don’t recall there being any kind of decline in ratings or the popularity of the NBA because of Jordan abetting sweatshop conditions in Asia.

There was less ill will towards the nation of China. They were a less credible rival to the United States. Well, I don’t think the sweatshop was in China. [Ed. note: Jordan was criticized over labor conditions in Indonesia. When asked about those conditions during the 1996 NBA Finals he said, “I think that’s Nike’s decision to do what they can to make sure everything is correctly done. I don’t know the complete situation. Why should I? I’m trying to do my job.”] To what you’re saying, there is not exactly a complete fairness to how we judge any of these things and some things roll off the celebrity’s back and other things stick. And it seems like for Jordan, that was a PR crisis that was handled and kind of went away.

But this current thing is getting at something, I think, beyond morality. There are elements of nationalism and maybe a credible fear that the United States is being overtaken by a country with more population that looks to be on the upswing. And so it’s just a different dynamic right now.

If we’re looking at the Daryl Morey tweet as the PR crisis, I don’t think it would be crazy just based on evidence—and you’re going to say it’s because I’m inside my bubble—to look at that also as a PR crisis that went away. I just don’t perceive there being a huge number of people who are not watching Lakers-Blazers right now because of China.

Well, now I’m going to go the other direction. In some ways, I think the NBA didn’t get proper credit for being a little bit more principled than some other corporations. Adam Silver did not say, “We need to fire Daryl Morey.” Daryl Morey is still the GM of the Rockets, and China’s government appears to badly have wanted him fired.

I think what happened to the NBA is that they made China part of their branding. They bragged about how well they were doing in China—we’re not as popular as football, but we’re international and we’re conquering the world. And so since the NBA made China such a part of its brand, when the relationship between the two nations curdled, I think it hurt them particularly badly, even if they handled it maybe in a way that was more moral than they were given credit for.

Listen to this full conversation on an episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen below, or subscribe to the show on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotifyStitcherGoogle Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.