NBA TV Ratings and Sports During the Pandemic

A look around the sports world with a focus on NBA TV ratings, bubbles, broadcasting, and sports during the pandemic.

In the sports world, like just about everywhere else, 2020 has been a year like no other. As concern for the COVID-19 pandemic peaked, organized, professional sports all but ground to a halt. Then, rightly or wrongly, concern started to lift and the leagues looked for ways to get back to work safely, with mixed results.

So, basically, we’ve got users responding to content under unusual circumstances.

I think about user behavior as it relates to content a lot, whether it’s the content I create for my business or, say, televised basketball games. Are people reading? Are they watching? How are they engaging with the content and why? Call it an interest. A fascination.

With that in mind, I wanted to share a few stories from this unprecedented year in professional sports.

The NBA Finals TV Ratings

Check back in a few days after the NBA Finals have concluded, but my gosh, a Los Angeles Lakers team led by one of the most iconic players in NBA history dished out the worst TV Ratings of Game One of the NBA Finals—ever! In fact, ratings are down in other leagues, like, NFL football and NHL hockey, too, though not to the same extent. There are a lot of possible reasons, and not all of them have anything to do with the oddities of 2020, but even so, I wasn’t sure I could believe the numbers. So I asked around among people who typically watch or consider watching NBA Finals, and here is what they told me:

  • “I woke up at 3 am and checked the sports scores, and I saw the Lakers won Game One. I didn’t know the NBA Finals had even started yet.”
  • “I tuned in during the third quarter, and the game was unwatchable, so I turned it off.”
  • “The intro video, plus not being able to tell whether it was a game or a political rally was a total turnoff.”
  • “I love the NBA Finals, but something about this league leaves me uninterested.”
  • “I stopped watching the NBA a few years ago.”

So, yeah, if my friends are any indication, something’s up! And these are people I thought liked the NBA. Maybe I just need to catch up with them on Zoom more often.

Personally, the NBA Finals is one of my favorite sporting events of the year. It’s a group of games, not just one, so you get ups and downs and adjustments and drama and history. But the no fans thing really hurts the game; I’d say the bubble look on TV for the NBA is as good as they could have done, but ending a game with a Debbie Downer soundcheck just loses appeal. That the matchup this year isn’t good doesn’t help, either.

This article here explores the political side of things related to the NBA TV ratings.

NFL COVID Outbreak

If any organization can get through a crisis, it’s the NFL, but a COVID-19 outbreak is not ideal for a football league. A few games being postponed or even canceled won’t have a long-term impact. But especially combined with the overall slight drop in ratings, it’s a story worth paying attention to.

Stanley Cup Ratings

The NHL season is over. They did some good things with their two-city bubble. And the games came across well on TV. Without the crowd part of the atmosphere was definitely missing, but like the NBA, they did the best they could with a tough situation. However, the TV ratings were not kind to the NHL, thanks to a variety of factors, including just too much competition, too much else to watch.

There are a lot of people writing a lot of doom and gloom about these low ratings, but the reality is that ratings vary. Last year the ratings for NHL games were high. Next year they may be high again. Let’s not forget that part of the competition for viewers that hurt the playoffs this year was from other sporting events not typically played at the same time as the NHL.

If the NHL has anything going for it, it’s their niche. Once a hockey fan, always a hockey fan. But there has to be a concern as they go into an uncertain offseason. They need growth to fuel contracts and salary caps and tv deals.

Major League Baseball

MLB—where to even start? Imagine trying to engage young fans but not allowing them to watch the game? That’s what’s happening. If you live near a baseball city, not even in the city, you get blacked out. If you live in Charlotte, you can’t watch the Atlanta Braves. If you live in Buffalo, you can’t watch the Cleveland Indians (well, no one can watch the Indians now cause they are out, but you know what I mean).

Add in that the game is just not that exciting anymore, thanks to changes in management styles and priorities. Strikeouts and home runs. Shifts and slow games. No wonder even former players are bored with America’s Past Time.

For once, this is a problem that has nothing to do with COVID. The MLB is doing it to themselves.

Last Word

I’ve been really interested to see how these leagues would handle the tough spots they were in. Overall, they’ve done very well (except maybe the MLB hasn’t). Under the circumstances, even having a season and giving fans the opportunity to watch games is a big deal. For that, all the leagues get a ton of credit.

Then, too, there are those who argue that the lowered ratings may not be that important. A big part of it is just that expectations were too high. ESPN and others thought the market for sports content is bigger than it really is, so they pushed for the leagues to meet the imaginary demand and scheduled too many games. The way ratings are calculated is part of the problem, too; if fifty people watched half of a game, that would count the same as 25 people watching the whole game. So between viewers skipping between games and those consuming sports online, the ratings aren’t reflecting the real size of the audience or the level of interest.

But the leagues could have done more with the broadcasts this year than they did. Without the fans, a traditional broadcast misses. After the honeymoon phase of having games again ended, the fans needed something different. Why not player cams and player mics? Why not different camera angles? Why not ref cams? Why not in-game interviews with the players? Yes, I know, there are social distancing requirements, but get creative, use technology, figure it out! Give the fans something different. Doing things the normal way during a time that isn’t normal at all was a mistake and may be one of the many reasons why ratings are down.

But a lot of people fear trying the unknown.

NBA TV ratings and related topics, sports, and entrepreneurship. We have a podcast for that. You’ll like it. Listen.

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Photo by Dave Weatherall on Unsplash