Air Ball! Things Become Worse as NBA Ratings for the Finals Are Lowest Ever

Mike Ehrmann/Pool Photo via AP

It is time for the league to admit to its self-created issues.

It has been an ongoing issue in professional sports all summer. League officials and sports journalists had been convinced the ratings for the return of the various sports would be huge, due largely to having a captive Covid audience at home and the pent-up demand for pro sports that had shut down for months. The exact opposite has played out.

The return led to lower ratings in all of the pro sports, something reflected in a national poll showing a steep drop in approval of professional sports by the general public. The NBA has been the real indicator, as the league experienced an initial drop with the return to play and then continued loss of audience as the playoffs began. Now we are seeing even more fan flight. The NBA Championship recently started and the result is jarring — the lowest ratings for the finals, ever.

Since audience share was measured this year’s contest hit the lowest figures, with only 7.41 million viewers, down significantly from the previous low of 8.1 million. This cannot be chalked up to bad matchups or small market returns either, as league figurehead LeBron James is playing, squaring off against his former team the Miami Heat. This is a response that follows the trend of the league repelling viewers all summer as they have been insistent upon blatant and frequent social activism lectures from players, coaches, and even the broadcasters.

As the league restarted there was a double-digit loss of audience from the previous season, and it was even more stark of a loss in the core demographic of viewers aged 18-49. As the playoffs got underway the loss was over -20% from 2019, and the Conference Finals delivered a harsh 35% drop from last year. Now as the league superstars play for a title even more fans are gone, with a boggling 45% loss of viewership from last year’s title series. Then, as if on a quest to make history, Game Two managed to plunge further, with a paltry 4.5 million viewers, off by 68% from last year’s Game 2. 

This is amazing to behold, and the league and the players seem either unconcerned or abjectly oblivious to the concept that their stern activist lectures, posturing, and on-court displays have driven away the fans. At some point, recognition would have to take over that what they are delivering is a severely damaged product. The gestures, the kneeling, the constant barrage of lectures and directives on-screen towards an audience seeking to escape that drumbeat of social unease are paying off in diminishing returns. Yet the league appears insistent on keeping this messaging in place.

At some point soon the ownership in the sporting world needs to come to terms with the fact that they are selling a product fewer numbers of people are interested in buying. The numbers on the rating scoreboards reflect the harsh truth.