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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Entering December, one of the most alarming NBA storylines is the league's declining TV ratings.

By the numbers: Through Nov. 22, games were averaging 1.45 million viewers across ESPN and TNT, down 18% from the same point last year (1.75 million).

Potential reasons:

  • On-court stuff: Load management has soured fans on the relative unimportance of the regular season (the NBA denies that it's an issue, citing that no player has missed a national TV game this year due to load management or rest); Kevin Durant and Zion Williamson are injured; the Warriors' dynasty is dead; LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard play on the West Coast.
  • Fandom shift: As much fun as the free agency madness has been in recent years, it may have hurt the NBA ratings-wise by turning fans' attention away from basketball and winning and towards rumors and off-court drama.
  • Cord-cutting: "Ratings are down because all of our national broadcasts are exclusively available on cable, which is losing subs daily," tweeted Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. "Football benefits from being on broadcast TV, which is in every digital and traditional package."

The NBA's response:

  • Schedule changes: To spark fan interest, the NBA and the players' union are in "serious talks" about adding (1) a midseason tournament similar to those used in European soccer and (2) a play-in tournament for the final two playoff spots in each conference.
  • YouTube crackdown: The league has cracked down on YouTube creators for using unlicensed videos, a move that threatens the quasi-legal world of NBA highlight channels.
  • Worth noting: The NBA has been considering scheduling changes and cracked down on YouTube accounts for several years, so those aren't necessarily knee-jerk reactions to the ratings decline.

The big picture: Let's focus on the YouTube crackdown because it illustrates the world that the NBA — and all sports leagues — now live in.

  • For years, the NBA has viewed social media and the larger digital landscape as a giant marketing funnel, providing fans with free "snacks" (highlights, GIFs, etc) to drive overall interest and make them want to come for the "meals" (games).
  • But now that a large contingent of fans — many of whom don't have cable — are snacking throughout the day without ever actually showing up for dinner, the "free snacks" era could be nearing its end.
  • What this YouTube crackdown represents: Moving forward, the NBA could attempt to monetize more directly its digital assets, rather than turning a (mostly) blind eye to unlicensed content and using that to drive broadcast viewership.

The bottom line: TV ratings still matter, but they no longer tell the whole story when it comes to fan engagement. As leagues cope with this new reality, the ways in which they monetize their product — and measure their popularity — are bound to change.

Final numbers: Over the next five years, the value of in-play "near live" clips (+76% to $1.7 billion) and short-form highlights (+101% to $3.2 billion) is expected to rise at a much faster rate than the value of live rights (+18.7% to $49.1 billion), per sports agency Two Circles.

Go deeper:

Editor's note: This story has been updated with the NBA's position on "load management" and the league's stance that it has been considering scheduling changes and cracking down on YouTube accounts prior to last month.

Go deeper

Updated 7 hours ago - World

UK government: Kremlin has plan "to install pro-Russian leadership" in Ukraine

British Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss. Photo: Gints Ivuskans / AFP via Getty Images

The United Kingdom's Foreign Secretary on Saturday night said the government has "information that indicates the Russian Government is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine."

Driving the news: U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne called the intelligence "deeply concerning" in a statement to Axios. The Biden administration has said Russia is actively manufacturing a pretext for invasion and warned that Putin could use joint military exercises in Belarus as cover to invade from the north.

Updated 8 hours ago - Science

This powerful new accelerator looks for keys to the center of atoms

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Nuclear physicists trying to piece together how atoms are built are about to get a powerful new tool.

Why it matters: When the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams begins experiments later this spring, physicists from around the world will use the particle accelerator to better understand the inner workings of atoms that make up all the matter that can be seen in the universe.

Updated 8 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: FDA OKs antiviral drug remdesivir for non-hospitalized COVID patients — Walensky: CDC language "pivoting" on "fully vaccinated" — Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Teens and adults missed 37 million vaccinations during COVID — Team USA 100% vaccinated against COVID ahead of Beijing Olympics — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America — Annual COVID vaccine preferable to boosters, says Pfizer CEO.
  3. Politics: Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates — Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults — Beijing officials urge COVID-19 "emergency mode" before Winter Olympics.
  5. Variant tracker