Stories

NBA ratings are down, but fans are still engaged

TV in a hoop
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.

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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.