Not even Christmas could save the NBA’s sagging television ratings.
According to several reports based on the Nielsen data, the league saw a 10% overall decline in viewership of their five-game slate this year. And while the primetime matchup — the Clippers comeback win over the Lakers — did extremely well in the Los Angeles market (12.0 rating), it saw a 14% drop in viewership from the 2018 prime-time matchup of Lakers-Warriors.
Even before Christmas Day, the NBA’s broadcast ratings were flopping like James Harden against a double-team. According to the Washington Post, the league was seeing a 17% decline in ratings compared to last season.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver isn’t running from the numbers. In fact, he told the Washington Post that the data is an indication not that the league is losing fans but rather the fans they have are consuming the product in other ways beyond broadcast television.
He’s right. Smartphones, digital subscriptions and social media have emerged to dramatically change the landscape and, perhaps, change the way we should measure appeal.
The NBA, by the way, is in the middle of a 9-year deal with both ABC/ESPN and TNT that will bring in a reported $2.66 billion dollars. Both networks have put a lot of energy into re-thinking how they package, produce and promote the broadcasts.
It also should be noted that the drop in ratings is due to the league being in somewhat of a transition phase when it comes to star power. For instance, LeBron James is about to turn 35 in a few weeks. His move from the East to the West, with the Lakers, is bound to have some impact on the broadcaster’s ability to showcase him in the first game of a national double-header.
The East, overall, doesn’t have a bona fide superstar outside of Kevin Durant, who is not expected to play at all this season for Brooklyn, which means the league and it’s broadcast partners are left to push MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo — hardly a household name beyond the niche fanbase — and the enigmatic Joel Embiid to viewers.
And if you want to say Kyrie Irving should be on that list, consider the fact that the league didn’t feature the Nets in the Christmas Day lineup despite his heralded arrival to the BK.
Blake Griffin used to be a marketable star, but his attraction has waned since his trade to Detroit and the injuries that have hampered his game.
In the West, the national attraction has been Steph Curry and the Warriors for most of this decade. But this season, with Klay Thompson (knee) out for the year and Curry (wrist) out for an extended period of time, even Golden State is no longer a must-watch team. And yet they provided us with the biggest upset of the day in their win over the Rockets and former MVP James Harden, who might be the most polarizing player in the game. Harden puts up breathtaking statistics, but his game is not often easy on the eyes or appealing for a national audience.
Chris Paul is now in a rebuilding situation in OKC, so we see more of him in State Farm commercials than in games. The Denver Nuggets are a well-coached, well-balanced team that has Nikola Jokic and his “Dad Bod” and some other players who only hardcore fans can name in a lineup. The Portland Trail Blazers have the sensationally talented Damian Lillard, but he plays so late into the night and so deep into the Northwest he’s almost a mystical character to most fans east of the Rockies.
Among the next generation, Luka Doncic is only now starting to gain appeal so you have to expect a heavy dose of Dallas Mavericks games are coming to the national schedule. Zion Williamson’s arrival was supposed to bring eyes like he did as a collegian, but he’s yet to play a regular-season game in the NBA due to knee surgery. There’s lots of compelling young talent in the game, but not many have the box office appeal of a young LeBron, Dwyane Wade or even Carmelo Anthony.
This is why the NBA is pushing the idea to make radical changes to the regular season — an in-season tournament, for example — in the next decade. If there is not enough star power to generate compelling matchups each week, they need to manufacture drama, instead.
Or maybe just find a way to better spread out their star power?
While the ratings were a disappointment, most of the games were not. The Celtics opened the day with a strong performance on the road in Toronto. The Sixers were on fire from the opening tip-off and put a surprising beat-down on the Bucks, who entered the day as the best team in the league. The upstart, undermanned Warriors executed a brilliant gameplan by Steve Kerr to pull of a stunner over the Rockets. Clippers-Lakers had great drama in the second half and a compelling finish. And while not many stayed up to see it, another upstart, undermanned team, the Pelicans, rallied to beat a Nuggets team that had been playing very well of late.
But the day is always about the stars. And several stars struggled to have some of their worst performances of their career. For instance, according to ESPN Stats & Info:
- Giannis Antetokounmpo shot 8 for 27 from the field. The 19 missed shots were the most he’s ever missed in a single game in his career.
- James Harden didn’t make a single free throw in the game, despite playing 38 minutes. Harden leads the NBA in free throws made and attempted this season, but the Warriors managed to not only limit his shots, but they avoided fouling him. It was the most minutes Harden has played in his career without making a single free throw.
- Russell Westbrook could not make up the difference for Golden State effectively taking Harden out of the game. Westbrook had a brutal shooting night that saw him go 0 for 8 from three-point range. It was he most threes he’s missed in a game without a single make in his career.
- LeBron James also struggled from downtown. He went 2 for 12 from three-point range and the 10 missed threes represented the most threes he has missed in a single game in his career.
Perhaps the worst news that came out of the day was that LeBron re-aggravated a groin injury when he took a charge during the loss to the Clippers. There are reports that people in the Lakers organization are pushing him to sit out some games to let the injury heal properly. The Lakers had gotten off to a blazing hot 24-3 start, but have since lost four straight.
Speaking of star-power, the Wizards once had one of the league’s most intriguing young backcourts in John Wall and Bradley Beal. But Wall has endured one injury after another and after missing 50 games last season is not expected to play at all this year as he recovers from an Achilles tear.
Beal, meanwhile, toils away as an all-star talent coming into his prime on a franchise that is trying to rebuild. No one would have blamed him if he requested a trade to a contender — and many teams were ready to pounce if he did — but instead, Beal signed a short-term extension to remain in Washington through the 2022-23 season.
But why not follow the path of the likes of Anthony Davis, Paul George and, to an extent, Kawhi Leonard, who each pushed their way out to chase championships?
“I’m good,” Beal told the Los Angeles Times recently. “They made their own decisions. At the end of the day, there’s no guarantee you’ll win a championship by jumping ship. Only one team wins …It looks great, but the grass isn’t always greener.”
There’s plenty of green in Washington for Beal, 26, who is making $27 million this season and will get $29 million in 2020-21 with the extension kicking in after that at $34.5 million in 2021-22 and then a player option for 2022-23 that pays $37.2 million.
Beal’s contract, it should be noted, runs in line with the one Wall signed that pays him an average of $42 million per and has a player option in 2022-23 of $47.3 million.
Wall is 29 and hasn’t played in more than half of a season in three years due to injury.
Beal may not want to demand a trade, but the Wizards may not give him the choice. They will either remain on a treadmill until Wall is healthy enough to play and reunite with Beal in the backcourt or until they can find a team willing to take on both contracts so they can reset their payroll into a full rebuild.