Basketball fans could hardly believe it. The Brooklyn Nets, seen as heavy favorites to win this year’s NBA championship, had a problem selling tickets.
Having some of the biggest names in basketball, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, on their roster, as well as a stadium in New York City, the biggest sports market in the country, just wasn’t enough to sell even 14’000 tickets.
In fact, the Nets were so desperate that they offered tickets at half the price. But this decline in interest isn’t just segregated to the Brooklyn Nets. The first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs just came to a close, and despite it happening under very similar circumstances to pre-covid years, TV ratings are down nearly 15%.
The NFL, by comparison, only dipped in ratings by about 4%, while still attracting over nine times the amount of viewers as the NBA.
So what exactly are the causes behind the NBA’s recent woes, and how can they compete with the NFL or Premier League to become a global sports heavyweight?
The NBA’s 82 game season presents two issues for the league.
With two times more regular season games than the Premier League and five times more than the NFL, it can often feel like individual NBA regular season matchups don’t matter.
Sure, a handful of teams might be fighting for a chance to go to the playoffs, and then it might come down to a few games, but for most of the league, the results of individual games won’t greatly impact your standing. Why should I be watching a seemingly meaningless game when the New York Giants are battling it out for a tightly contested playoff spot?
The NBA playoffs, the supposed pinnacle of basketball, has also been manipulated by the league into a cash grab. Though they might have thought dragging out each playoff series to four to seven games instead of a win or go home single elimination game would result in more overall viewership, it still falls far behind football. Even in the extremely unlikely chance that each playoff series went to the seventh game, NBA playoff viewership would still be several millions behind the NFL.
The number of injuries is also amplified when teams have such a tight schedule. Combining Back to back games and constant traveling across the country with basketball, the sport is consistently ranked by doctors as the most likely to cause injury, and it becomes an absolute mess.
Those injuries have way more of an impact on viewership and interest than in other sports. While people might watch other sports to root for their favorite team, it has become commonplace in the NBA for fans to cheer for particular stars. This is not only due to marketing for professional basketball having been very star-oriented for a long time, but also because basketball has significantly less players compared to most other popular team sports.
So if Lebron James gets injured, fans are less interested in tuning into a game, because they know But if, for example, one star midfielder in soccer were to miss a game, they’re only one out of eleven players so the quality of play wouldn’t be too heavily affected.
The NBA is also way too predictable. Between 2014 and 2018, the same two teams, the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers faced off against each other in the NBA finals. While some might have found it to be an “exciting rivalry”, the fact that TV ratings steadily declined during the period of exclusively Warriors versus Cavs finals show how it hurt interest in the league from the fans of the other 28 teams that were left out of the finals.
Over the course of the entire history of the NBA, five teams accounted for 70 percent of the championships. The league’s very laissez faire style of enforcing the financial rules that were supposed to keep pro basketball competitive has left small market teams powerless as the big city franchises continue to have an iron grip over the sport. Does Adam Silver really think fines and taking away 2nd round picks is going to do anything to discourage teams like the Golden State Warriors from manipulating the salary cap however they please.
NBA franchises in Minneapolis, Memphis and Detroit have struggled to turn a profit, as small market sports fans start to give up on pro basketball, knowing that their team won’t stand a chance against the limitless pockets of L.A. and New York.
So while the NBA might one day surpass the NFL or even the Premier League in popularity, it’ll likely be over a decade from now, given the amount of work Adam Silver and co need to do in order to solve some of the problems professional basketball faces.