The NBA Finals are about to come to an end within weeks of a presidential election and aside from Kobe’s ghost leading the Lakers to victory and Big Face Coffee fueling the Heat’s underdog run, the biggest story in the league is a decline in TV ratings. The NBA and its own self-destruction are the closest friends imaginable, after all. Sure, we are in an unprecedented public health and financial crisis coupled with mass protests and federally-sponsored police brutality, not to mention all four professional sports happening simultaneously, but the NBA’s sagging TV ratings are something we are supposed to discuss with a straight face.
Being a basketball fan in 2020 doesn’t stop at watching the games. Every serious fan also has to be a head coach, a general manager, a video coordinator, and a capologist. But now we have to have to track the league’s TV ratings and present our theories about the root causes? I’ll happily read Larry Coon’s CBA FAQ and I’ll even watch mix tapes of college prospects. but I draw the line at cosplaying as a sports marketer. That’s the saddest possible version of fantasy sports and I’m including college kids playing ground-bound intramural Quidditch.
It’s even sadder to look at politics for the answer, just because a disingenuous grifter wants to go on the Federalist podcast because they burned all their bridges with their home NBA team. Do casual fans dislike players having social justice messages on their jerseys? Maybe! There certainly are a lot of sports fans who seem kinda racist, and sometimes it was hard to tell which player with EQUALITY on his back was which for the Brooklyn Nets. (Sadly, we didn’t get to see Spencer “Group Economics” Dinwiddie) Does the NBA lose money if the ratings are bad? Sort of, in an indirect way, but fans aren’t seeing any of that money. Is the NFL more popular than the NBA? Of course it is. Fantasy football is more popular than the NBA. Who cares?
It should not affect your enjoyment of basketball if the ratings climb or plummet or they stop using Nielsen boxes entirely and decide ad rates based on studying the aggregated audio from all our phones constantly surveilling us. You don’t get any of that money! If basketball outright tanks, the worst effect you’ll see is a few regular-season games preempted by a baseball telecast. But since the NBA already makes playoff games inaccessible by putting them on NBA TV, what’s the problem really? Grow up and learn how to illegally stream games on your computer already.
Rooting for unpopular sports rules! I used to go to a dozen Oakland A’s games every year, and the tickets cost me about 40 bucks combined. Those games were tight, hot dogs were a dollar, and everyone else was missing out. When the Giants moved to their beautiful new ballpark in 2000, the most immediate result for me was I could no longer get super cheap tickets at dilapidated icebox Candlestick Park. It was better for the Giants themselves, significantly worse for me and my wallet.
Things are universally less cool when they’re more popular, whether it’s bands, movies, restaurants, you name it. Weirder and more interesting things happen when there aren’t millions of dollars at stake. One month of the ABA featured more strange events and bizarre characters than a full year of the modern NBA. Publicly fretting about the NBA’s viewership turns you into the people who agonize over movie box office on behalf of their preferred comic book/movie/action figure corporation’s films. Even as a basketball writer, the popularity of the sport has way less to do with my continued employment than the whims of some vulture capital executive or an algorithm’s inputs suddenly changing.
Whatever the NBA does in terms of outreach, it’s probably going to make things worse for them. Because the least cool thing possible is campaigning for popularity. That is why politicians are the least cool people in the entire world. Running for president is the dorkiest, thirstiest activity possible, when you tour the country begging random strangers to be your friend and give you money. And guess what? Ratings are way down for the debates, too. Maybe they should play H-O-R-S-E?