The NBA’s 77th season is set to begin on Tuesday. While television ratings are not the sole way to measure the health of a major professional sports league, the NBA’s 2022-23 numbers could be thrown in the face of the anti-woke crowd — yes, I’m talking to you, Phil Jackson.
Pandemic losses and Daryl Morey’s international crisis were taken on the chin, and the league has emerged on the other side as healthy as it has ever been. As entertainment continues to become increasingly digital, the NBA has remained far ahead of the other major American sports leagues in that space. Per a league release, the NBA’s Instagram totaled more than 13 billion video views — better than any other account.
Not only are people watching the NBA on traditional television, but they are engaging with it worldwide in a way that the NFL is still reaching for with its international games. The NFL is so far behind the NBA in international relevance that its fans will be forced to watch the Miami Dolphins play the Kansas City Chiefs in Germany at 9:30 a.m. EST on Nov. 5. Taylor Swift begins the international leg of her Eras Tour four days later in South America, so she might not make that game. According to the NBA, 70 percent of its social media followers are international.
With all of the NBA’s success, it is still doing quite a bit of tinkering with the product heading into the 2023-24 season. There is always room for improvement and some of the steps that the NBA is taking make complete sense. Others, however, come off as desperate, and almost beneath a brand that is this strong.
Television is still currently the top revenue source for most major American sports leagues. Its value has resulted in the destruction of the rivalries and spirit that make college sports entertaining. All NFL games are broadcast on a national television outlet, while the NBA is like the other leagues that have to air most of their games exclusively in local markets/League Pass.
Cable television allowed non-NFL teams to rake in money with regional sports network contracts, but that model is fast becoming obsolete. The bankruptcy of Diamond Sports Group has forced franchises to act on the fly to salvage current seasons.
Those struggles make it all the more important for the NBA to max out its next national television negotiations. Their product on ESPN/ABC and Turner is appointment viewing. Some of sports television’s most well-known personalities — i.e. Charles Barkley and Stephen A. Smith — are a part of the NBA national television experience.
But unlike the NFL and MLB, the NBA’s national television rights will be negotiated as the cable model is in the midst of an alarming level of deterioration. The Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz will be airing their games in their home markets on free broadcast television this season due to issues with Diamond Sports Group and the AT&T Sports networks going out of business.
Problems with the way that the NBA presents most of its games could be considered a sign of a declining interest in the product. Counterpoint, the most recent NBA postseason was the most watched in five years.
The playoffs for every major sports league is the highlight of the calendar. Last spring, the NBA Playoffs reached massive viewership heights. The Golden State Warriors’ Game 7, first-round, victory against the Sacramento Kings was the highest-rated NBA non-Finals on ABC game since the league left NBC in 2002. The Warriors’ semi-final series against the Los Angeles Lakers was the most watched in 27 years. Yes, that includes several series that involved Michael Jordan.
The strong viewership did not stop there. With no Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference Finals, it would have been reasonable to expect a dip in viewership. The team with the best record in the NBA was out, and what took their place was a rematch of the 2022 ECF between the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat, which began with the Heat taking a 3-0 lead. The Heat smoked the Celtics in Game 7 and it was still the fifth-highest rated NBA game ever on cable television.
That traditional audience engagement is in addition to the NBA’s digital stronghold. Per league data, as of April 2023, its 78 million followers was the eighth most of any platform on Instagram. The NBA also has the first YouTube account of any professional sports league to accumulate more than 20 million followers.
Yet, with national television contract negotiations coming up soon the league is shoveling as many jerseys to the public as possible, and treating its player rest like an existential crisis.
The new City Edition jerseys every season and the little credence given to NBA tradition with jersey matchups are annoying, but at least that cash grab is understandable in 2023 capitalism. But for the league to spend the offseason attacking player rest comes off like the product is not offering television partners a product worthy of the multi-billion dollar price tag.
Sure, star players resting only has an effect on the regular-season viewing experience. That portion of the schedule spans six months as opposed to the postseason three. The NBA wants the bulk of its season to be as valuable as possible.
But even with star players regularly on the court for less than 70 games, In the modern traditional television market, few prime-time programs are as dependable as an NBA basketball game on ESPN, TNT, or ABC. Per a Sports Media Watch study, the decline in traditional television viewership has not hit the NBA nearly as hard as the majority of television.
The overall decline in prime-time viewership since 2017-18, is double the NBA’s percentage. Also, at 1.59 million viewers per regular-season contest, the NBA is walloping all other major sports leagues in viewership except for the NFL — a league in which teams play one game per week.
With one of the most dependable products in television, the league is overhauling its rule book regarding star-player availability. Access to players’ medical records, a 65-game minimum for regular-season awards, and escalating fines for teams are a few of the ways in which the NBA is trying to ensure that teams play their top players as much as possible.
Is this all in response to Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav’s bluff when he stated that he doesn’t need the NBA? Live sports was recently added to the MAX app. For direct-to-consumer streaming to work for sports, Warner Bros. will need its top property for this new venture to have any success.
Good companies make changes before they are necessary. On the digital side, the NBA is doing just that by an upgrade of the app. It will be more personalized than ever before and also have an interface that is similar to TikTok and Instagram, which will better engage the league’s young fan base.
For decades the NBA has been ahead of the pack in technology. Gilbert Arenas was one of the original superstar bloggers. The league’s videos regularly garner huge viewership — it reported that there were 32 billion views across all NBA and related social media platforms last season. I have regularly been visiting NBA.com since my parents first got the internet in the late 1990s.
Continuing to invest in digital research and development will keep the league far ahead of the pack on the interwebs. It will be in the best position to deal with the looming full departure of eyeballs from traditional television. That is a selling point to keep the billions of dollars flowing from the top media companies in the world.
Monitoring the X-rays of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to determine if the Los Angeles Clippers are keeping them off of the floor in good faith comes off as desperate and unsure. NBA Saturday and Sunday nationally televised games will never have the massive viewership of the NFL.
Neither will any other programming that is regularly on television. As the live television audience continues to shrink, that reduction in viewership is happening at a much slower pace in the NBA. Not only that, but last season showed the league’s ability to put up its highest viewership in decades even amongst all of the cord-cutting and changes in the way people consume entertainment.
Some work needs to be done with the local games to shore up the bottom lines of teams that aren’t the Warriors or Lakers, but those problems are tiny in the massive windfall of NBA success. Revenue does not need to be chased like a dollar on a windy day.
The NBA is in a great place. There is no need for it to beg through policy or otherwise to land network money when it is one of the most dependable brands in the world.
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