Live sports paused in March as the country grappled with how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. When they returned there was initial excitement and a surge in attention, but by the time some of the leagues were having their postseasons in September and October, ratings had fallen.
MLB saw its NLCS Game 1 ratings down 10% from the prior year. The NHL’s Stanley Cup Finals were down much more, and the NBA Finals set a new record low in each of the first four games of the series. The NBA Finals six game series was down over half from 2019 and over 60% from 2017. The NBA’s drop in ratings has received extra attention because of the longer-term historical trend it continues and their involvement in politics – international and domestic – over the past six months.
There are several possible reasons why 2020 viewership has been so low. Two of the six 2020 NBA Finals games competed with the NFL on Sunday, something the NBA Finals generally don’t have to deal with. The clinching game of the NBA finals drew half the audience that NBC Sunday Night football drew (7.4 mil vs. 15.1 mil). The lack of fans in the stands certainly detracted from the product on the court. The political messaging from the league and its players – including messaging on the court and on jerseys – disenfranchised 38% of fans too.
How much each of these contributed to the NBA’s viewership decline nobody can precisely measure, and attempts to do so seem politically motivated. I won’t try to do the same. Instead, I’d like to share how I went from a die-hard Lakers fan, with posters of Kobe and Shaq on my wall during high school, to one that didn’t watch a minute of the Lakers’ NBA Championship run in 2020. It’s certainly not as simple as just politics.
My love for the NBA started in the late 90s. The 1997 NBA Finals are the earliest I can recall. I loved Michael Jordan, and had a Chicago Bulls blanket on my bed. Everyone wanted to “be like Mike.” I was a Lakers fan though. I loved Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, Rick Fox, Robert Horry, and Shaquille O’Neal. Clemson’s own Elden Campbell was on those late 90s Lakers teams too (though I hadn’t heard of Clemson yet). They added Kobe Bryant in 1999 and won their first championship of my fanhood in 2000. I enjoyed five Lakers NBA Championships from 2000 to 2010 and couldn’t imagine that one day I would not even watch them play in the Finals, but the very next year is when I slowly began souring on the NBA.
It started with the formation of the first true “Super Team.” The Miami Heat lured LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwayne Wade and form what seemed like an unbeatable team. Theatrics around the formation of the team were especially unsavory. LeBron James announced his decision to join the Heat with a special program called “The Decision,” where he infamously said, “I’ll be taking my talents to South Beach.” In my mind, that marked the NBA’s villain – LeBron James and the Miami Heat. The Heat went on to play in the next four NBA finals (going 2-2).
Their success was especially frustrating because of what happened during the 2011-12 season. First, the season was delayed (and eventually shortened) due to a labor lockout. Then the Lakers landed a blockbuster trade to add arguably the league’s best point guard – Chris Paul. With the trade, they’d be able to compete with Miami’s super team. Unfortunately, the Lakers getting back to the top so quickly after already winning five of the last 12 NBA titles didn’t excite everyone. The league vetoed the trade for “basketball reasons.” The Lakers posted a worse win percentage than the season prior for five years in a row after the veto. Kobe Bryant never won another title, and Chris Paul was deprived of one.
As soon as the Miami super team was dismantled, a new one emerged – The Golden State Warriors. They won the Western Conference five straight years. The Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James’ new team, won the East four straight years. The forgone conclusion up to the Finals rendered the rest of the season and playoffs much less compelling, and further quelled my interest.
Furthermore, it was during this time that the league became much more offensive minded, with emphasis on freedom of movement as well as advanced analytics and three-point shooting. As an example of the impacts of these changes, the average score in the 2010 NBA finals was 90 (LAL) vs. 87 (BOS) compared to a whopping 110 (LAL) vs. 105 (MIA) in this year’s NBA Finals.
It was also during the reign of the Warriors super team that the league began becoming highly political. The Warriors refused to visit the White House after their Championships. In 2017, Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich called President Trump a “soulless coward.” LeBron James, then on the Cleveland Cavaliers, said he is “someone who doesn’t understand the people—and really don’t give a [expletive] about the people.” When bluntly attacked by Fox News host Laura Ingraham for these comments, he said “I will definitely not ‘shut up and dribble.’ I mean too much to society.”
Following his third NBA finals loss to the Warriors (they beat the Warriors in the 2016 Finals), LeBron James left Cleveland to join the Los Angeles Lakers for the 2018-19 season. This gave me a strange mix of emotions. On the one hand, the Lakers were suddenly relevant again after being rendered hapless since the 2011 trade veto. On the other hand, they returned to relevance by adding a player that had been among my least favorite since “the decision,” and who had become increasingly divisive since.
I was far from enthused, but watched a few games. The Lakers struggled, finished 37-45, and missed the playoffs. The Lakers then added Anthony Davis over the off-season, and were set to compete for a championship in 2020. Things were getting a little exciting, but at the start of the year, any excitement I had was extinguished when the face of the franchise backed communist China.
In October of 2019, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” The NBA quickly distanced themselves from the now-deleted tweet. Commissioner Adam Silver said the NBA has “mutual respect” for China. LeBron James said:
“I don’t want to get into a word or sentence feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke, and so many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically. Emotionally. Spiritually. So just be careful what we tweet and what we say, and what we do. Even though yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that too.”
Interestingly, he was far less concerned about being “careful what we tweet and say” when NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski replied to an email from a US Senator with “F*** you.” What was in the email to elicit such an angry reaction? Simply a call to the NBA to allow messages like “Free Hong Kong” in addition to their approved list of slogans like “Black Lives Matter” and “Vote.” LeBron James wasn’t just unconcerned though, he actively encouraged it, tweeting #FreeWoj in support of ending the brief suspension the NBA placed on Adrian “Woj” Wojnarowski.
The Lakers’ star player’s consistent support for communist China was the last straw for my NBA fandom. That feeling was further cemented by LeBron’s “I have zero comment” response to a question about two police officers shot in cold blood in LA just after he suggested the Kenosha, WI police officer who shot Jacob Blake “just left the house saying that today is going to be the end for one of these Black people.”
So when the Lakers played in the 2020 NBA finals, I couldn’t bring myself to cheer for the team I grew up loving. While it took a confluence of highly improbable events to kill my NBA fanhood, I don’t think my story is unique.