The narrative surrounding mostly everything in 2018 in negative, but that is not the case for the NBA. It is often described as a growing league, a progressive league, and the sport of the future. Without question, the ratings this season have been corresponding to just that.
Ratings for the regular season saw an 8 percent increase and currently, the postseason is following the pattern coming into the conference finals up year-over-year, and now featuring the most-watched West Game 1 ever. But what is missing in all of this is the quality of the games. The NBA has provided nearly unwatchable games to their fans, yet they are not turning away. This is all due to a false imagination they have developed.
For years, the NBA regular season has proven to mean nothing once the postseason arrives, with teams such as the Raptors dominating the competition only to get swept and embarrassed before mid-May. However, NBA apologists would say the playoffs make up for it: Incorrect.
This postseason there have been 71 games played, 42 have been decided by double digits. Not to mention, many of these games were decided by significantly more than 10 points and over by halftime.
Why are fans okay with it, why are they not turning the channel? Because they may not be realizing it and the effect on audience attention has yet to fully materialize. The NBA audience is overlooking all the bad games, all the meaningless play, all the irrelevant outcomes because of personal connection.
One of the primary reasons that constant blowouts and short series are not an issue is that some viewers are more concerned about the individual play. At the top of that pantheon is LeBron James. The ongoing debate of LeBron James vs Michael Jordan has nearly become more important than who will be crowned champion at the end of the season.
With so many sports fan invested in picking a side in the debate, it has left the audience intrigued even when the games are no longing intriguing. Last Finals, it was clear after just four quarters LeBron was not going to be able to defeat the Warriors. That meant nothing as fans of LeBron were more concerned if he could dominate the Finals individually, while fans of Jordan wanted to see him lose yet another NBA Finals.
The five-game non-competitive series averaged 20.4 million total viewers and was the highest rated Finals since 1998. Were the games memorable? No. What was memorable, however, is two completely perpendicular narratives: 1. “LeBron James lost his fifth Finals and Jordan never lost any.” 2. “LeBron James did not have the team to beat an all-time great Warriors’ team.”
Fans of the NBA have become so embedded in not just LeBron but other superstars and storylines inside the games that they are not bothered by the poor quality of games and non-competitive series whatsoever.
In addition to the individual stars of the NBA overshadowing the league as a whole, there is certainly a “cool factor” now taking place. Popular to admit or not, social media is impactful.
Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook do not represent everyone, but it does influence many. Monitor Twitter like many already do during an NFL game, it is filled with criticism of the league. The league will be called “boring,” “racist,” and “conservative.”
The NBA, on the other hand, is where the cool kids can hang out, watch, tweet and get an abundance of likes and retweets. It is the sport that one can play in the park with friends, mimic styles, wear the shoes, and be the coolest kid in class if good at it.
Regardless of the games, or the lack of suspense, or the inability for teams to compete against one team’s dominance, this age group is still going to watch with their expensive shoes, tweet the coolest dunks, argue who his best, and pretend they are one of these players in the gym the next day.
All in all, this is a positive for the NBA, but more of a knock on the audience. It shows they are not pushing for good quality and fine with the status quo.
Along with the connections to the players, and the league being more suitable for what social media demands, the drama has become just as important of an element. This, of course, is not drama on the court, no, it’s more drama that is on par with reality television.
The NBA has turned its offseason into a Kardashian-esque product. Twitter once again is pumping up the sport as it serves as the de facto rumor mill. Just last summer there was 24/7 attention put on LaVar Ball, Lonzo Ball’s Summer Leauge, Lakers rumors, Kyrie Irving vs LeBron James, Kyrie to Celtics, LeBron James to Lakers rumors, to just name some.
These discussions became so dominant late into August it was hard for a sports fan to even know that football season was returning. The audience loved it, they could not get enough, and when the season rolled around nothing was going to prevent them from watching.
Ratings are up, the drama is up, the hype is up, but the actual game quality and intrigue not so much. And this has been what the fans have accepted. It all stems from a false narrative that they have developed. At this point, no matter what, the fans think they are enjoying the product. But at some point do they step back and realize that what they are watching is not very good or competitive? If that happens, and if it also coincides with LeBron James (now 33 years old) becoming mortal in the next few years, the growth and progress may be an illusion.