Professional basketball, more than any other sport, markets itself around individual personalities and superstar matchups. Superstars like Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Larry Bird are spoken of independent of the teams they’re on in ways that other sports actively discourage when they want fans to “root for teams, not players.”
On the bright side, this means players can play almost anywhere and still pull TV ratings — Cleveland, not exactly a hotbed of American media activity, could make the Finals four straight years and the only ratings dropoff the Cavaliers brought with them was purely due to audience fatigue because they played against the Golden State Warriors for all four of those years, the last two particularly one-sided series.
On the other hand, when a big star retires or ends up on a rotten team, like Jordan (who did both, retiring and playing for the Washington Wizards in his twilight years) or James (whose Los Angeles Lakers were and are a complete mess), the NBA is left without its strongest marketing tools to get people to watch the playoffs.
Add to this an Eastern Conference Finals matchup between one of the smallest markets in America and a Canadian market that might have North America’s fourth-largest city but contributes zero to US television ratings — as the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors are, respectively — and the numbers go right into the toilet.
According to Richard Deitsch of The Athletic, Game 2 of the Bucks-Raptors series on TNT had ratings that were down a staggering 48 percent from the LeBron-led Cavaliers and Boston Celtics in the East Finals last year.
The Raptors-Bucks has been fascinating from a basketball perspective. But the ECF is where the NBA has seen its TV viewership crater. Per @paulsen_smw: Friday’s Game 2 drew 4.39 million viewers on TNT, down 48% from CLE-BOS on ESPN last year & 14% from CLE-BOS on TNT in 2017.
— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) May 21, 2019
Granted, Nielsen ratings don’t include Canadian viewers, but TNT didn’t pay megabucks in rights fees to the NBA for Canadian viewers. TNT is a U.S .cable channel, and its advertisers care purely about U.S. viewership.
for ratings, that pair of markets was probably worst-case scenario for the east. those televisions in canada don’t count for american ratings. https://t.co/5eOXXZ4wZR
— bomani (@bomani_jones) May 21, 2019
We’re seeing a parallel here in golf, which has seen a resurgence in its ratings thanks to the resurrection of Tiger Woods’ career with his Masters victory. Without golf’s biggest star, TV networks struggled to put together a compelling reason for people who aren’t diehard fans of the sport to watch. Until the PGA solves that problem, it’s in the same boat.
The NBA went through this same problem between 1999 and about 2007. Jordan’s second retirement left the league in its dark ages, where a combination of stars such as Allen Iverson who didn’t appeal to heartland America, disastrous quality of play that included a playoff game that ended 66-64 and stagnation in level of competition thanks to the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs winning six titles in seven years cratered casual fan interest in the sport.
Of course, the NBA recovered.
The draft class of 2003 that featured James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh came of age. Big markets dominated playoff matchups when the Celtics-Lakers rivalry revived thanks to Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant. Offense, previously thought dead, returned, to the point where a lot of fans think the game doesn’t have enough defense anymore.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Stars are retiring — Bryant, Garnett, Ray Allen and Tim Duncan in 2016, Wade and Dirk Nowitzki this year. Other stars are effectively out of the league or in the twilights of their careers, from James (arguably) to Anthony and Bosh.
The sense of competitive stagnation will continue for as long as the Golden State Warriors keep acting like they’re the 1960s Celtics.
And while the Next Big Thing, Zion Williamson, might very well be about to be drafted by the New Orleans Pelicans, and there are plenty of exciting young talents lighting up the league and starting to make a mark on the playoffs, including Giannis Antetokoumpo, Joel Embiid and Donovan Mitchell, the NBA didn’t magically rise from the post-Jordan ashes just because LeBron got drafted. It took a few years for the league to see the effects.
So the NBA is looking at a full-fledged ratings disaster in the Eastern Conference Finals this year.
And while it’s surely doing just fine with its Canadian broadcast partners, leaving TNT hung out to dry could be a thorn in the side for the network when it comes to negotiating the rights to future playoff broadcasts in the next contract, especially if Kawhi Leonard is persuaded to stay in Toronto rather than taking off for Los Angeles or ending up somewhere else entirely.
The NBA can only hope it’s not seeing a repeat of history last seen in the wake of Jordan leaving a Jumpman-shaped hole in the world’s premier basketball league.
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