While the NBA has suffered from waning viewing figures in recent years, this season has proven to be a resurgence for the league.
During the COVID-19 interrupted 2019/20 season, the NBA received heavy criticism for its focus on social justice. Just months earlier, the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota had inflamed racial tensions in the US, provoking riots and clashes between civilians and police.
In the Orlando bubble where the interrupted season was completed, many of the players took to wearing social justice slogans on the back of their jerseys to spread messages for peace, while a first-round game between the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic had to be moved back following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. The Bucks boycotted the game and were joined by the Magic, citing their exasperation with police shootings.
Following the postponement, a meeting was held by all the players and coaches within the bubble on whether to continue the playoffs. Ultimately, the players elected to finish the season, reasoning that the increased attention of playoff games would help spread their message further.
While many praised the efforts and passion of the players, they were met with significant criticism from many right-wing politicians and commentators, many of whom stating publicly that they would no longer be watching the NBA. The older generations of sports fans contain many who believe that politics and sports should be kept separate, as it has been in previous decades. However, the tide has now shifted with this current generation of athletes and keeping the two separate will no longer be possible.
Many were curious as to what the effects on TV ratings would be when the NBA returned for the 2020/21 season. Comparing the 2020/21 season to the last fully uninterrupted season of 2018/19, TV ratings for the regular season were reportedly 25% lower.
However, it’s unfair to ascribe this drop solely to social justice and politics, due to the bizarre nature of the season. The majority of the regular season was played without fans in empty arenas, and many of the games were affected by players either entering or leaving COVID-19 protocols.
Some questioned whether these measures were too strict, with players being forced to isolate if they had encountered anyone who had potentially been exposed to COVID-19. This led to a handful of games being pushed back later into the season due to some teams not having enough players available to complete a match.
Despite the struggles of the 2020/21 regular season, the addition of the play-in tournament by the NBA helped boost ratings prior to the playoffs. The tournament, which sees the teams placing sixth through tenth in each conference to determine the last two playoff seeds. Last season saw a matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors, which meant another iconic battle between legends LeBron James and Steph Curry.
While the introduction of the play-in tournament was initially with scepticism from many fans, it has largely been seen as a success, and has allowed teams, who previously, would not have had a chance to make the playoffs another lifeline. This has increased the unpredictability of the league, and has likely led to increased interest from those who felt the league was getting stale.
For the 2021/22 regular season, TV ratings were up 19% year-on-year and mark the league’s strongest performance since the 2018/19 season. Audiences on ABC, ESPN and TNT all saw increases in viewership of 13%, 17% and 13% respectively from the 2020/21 season. Additionally, the NBA saw a 30% jump in the subscriber count for its international OTT service, NBA League Pass, while the NBA’s social media platforms have accrued 13 billion views this season, which is a 7% increase year-on-year.
What these numbers prove is that the emphasis on social justice hasn’t led many fans to abandon their interest in the league. The opposite could also be true, in the sense that the increased emphasis on societal discourse may have increased interest in the league in some quarters.
The increased parity in the league could also be another factor in the league’s rebound, with this year’s championship race still wide open. A frustration for NBA fans in the last decade has been the formation of super teams, with multiple superstars joining the same team to maximise their chances of winning a championship. This trend has declined in recent years, with the league now being considered the most equal it’s been in many years.
The increasing numbers could also just be a sign of increased interest post-COVID, with many sports finding games with empty arenas difficult to watch due to the lack of atmosphere. Whatever the reasons are, the NBA will be glad to see that they are once again heading in the right direction, and it’s come in good time considering that the league’s next media rights cycle will commence in 2025/26. The league will be looking to negotiate a sizable increase in value, given that the NFL, NHL and MLB have all done the same in recent years.