NBA Ratings Are Only Bad if You Care About What People Are Watching

By Stephen Douglas
Some Friends watch UFC.
Some Friends watch UFC.
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The NBA has been in serious trouble for more than two decades now as they have been unable to recover from the retirement of Michael Jordan. Things have only gotten worse lately according to The Athletic. So what will the league do with a season without fans on the horizon? Well, probably just settle for less profits and then go back to making gobs of money a year later. Here's what Forbes had to say about the NBA right before the pandemic came along and ruined the entire American economy.

"But our research shows the business of basketball is still red hot. NBA franchise values continue to soar, up 14% in the past year to an average of $2.12 billion. Compare that with an 11% annual increase for NFL teams and 8% in Major League Baseball, with average values of $2.86 billion and $1.78 billion, respectively. NBA values are up nearly sixfold over the past decade. The NBA’s 30 teams generated a record $8.8 billion in revenue last season, up 10% over the previous year. It will be up again this season, with gate receipts projected to rise 8% overall. Revenue will also be helped by a new arena for Golden State and renovations to existing arenas in Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Washington."

So, as usual, the gigantic global American sports league brand will be OK. It may not draw comparable numbers to the almighty football, but it's not really in trouble. Still, the ratings are bad! Except when they really aren't.

No, 1.9 million is not a huge number, but on a Saturday afternoon in the summer? Not bad. Probably more people than were streaming Friends for that two and a half hours. And that's what sports leagues are really competing against: there are so many options that everyone is watching everything less than they were 25 years ago.

Twenty-five years ago the top shows on television were E.R., Seinfeld, Friends and Caroline in the City. They all beat Monday Night Football. Again: Caroline in the City beat Monday Night Football. The NFL has been the only thing to completely survive. In 2019, the league had all of the biggest ratings and no one watches sitcoms like they used to. Well, kind of.

Young people continue to watch Friends to the point that HBO Max paid $425 million for the streaming rights after it was consistently one of the most-streamed things on Netflix for years. And no one outside Netflix really has any idea how much anyone watched Friends.

Meanwhile, Caroline in the City is available on CBS All-Access. There was a reunion for that show in May. Fewer than 8,000 people have watched the video on YouTube. A reunion of Community a week later has been viewed over three million times. More people watched Caroline in the City in one season than watched Community's entire five seasons on television. What does any of this mean? Nothing, but Caroline in the City's ratings in 1995 are higher than both Thursday Night Football and Monday Night Football's in 2019. So why doesn't the NFL Network reboot Caroline in the City with Matt Ruhle in Lea Thompson's role?

The truth is ratings are stupid as are excuses for them. Mostly because ratings are created by the habits of stupid people like me who are watching sports or streaming old sitcoms they've already seen instead of reading books or figuring out how to successfully mail something in under a month.

So why do we care about ratings? They have nothing to do with quality. They don't determine what you remember or remember fondly. Each viewing is different. Some people are fans. Some people fall asleep with the television on. The Internet has been poisoning my brain to think about ratings for years and almost care about them.

The only constant has been that football is popular, even if that never occurred to me when I was younger. I personally have been watching football and basketball for like, three decades. When I was a kid I watched whenever I could. It never occurred to me how many people were watching any of it. Now, I still watch whenever I can, but I have a family and worry that they might be responsible for a slight dip in ratings? What can the NBA do to combat my children?

The good news is, I don't really care about sports ratings because I know sports are going to be OK in the long run. We've got parents petitioning to put their children in a dangerous situation so I think football will survive. NBA teams are worth billions so I know as long as there is money to be made, people will keep it around even if it's not as popular as a sitcom that people haven't thought about in two decades.

There's no one answer to "save" the NBA because it doesn't need saving. Viewing habits have changed. Basketball, like baseball, is something that is often on, while football is an event. Football is communal and each game has an air of finality to it. Bars and parking lots are packed on Saturdays and Sundays as teams can lose their entire season in one afternoon. The NBA stretches out the action over 82 games and then a bunch of seven-game series. A lopsided sweep in the NBA takes a week. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs give you a full range of emotions in less time than it takes to watch The Godfather Part II, which (adjusted for inflation) isn't one of the top 200 grossing movies of all-time.

So is The Secret Life of Pets truly better than The Godfather Part II? The numbers say yes, but a more nuanced discussion might result in a different conclusion. The truth may lie somewhere in between based on who you're talking to. Either way, room exists for both those movies, Caroline in the City, Friends, the NBA and the NFL to exist.

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