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NBA Ratings Surprisingly Up in the Early Days of the 2020-21 Season

Liam McKeone
Brooklyn Nets Big 3
Brooklyn Nets Big 3 / Jason Miller/Getty Images
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NBA ratings are up 34 percent this year. Or so the league says. The NBA PR team released Nielsen ratings for this season compared to the opening stretch of last year's games and things are looking up. Per Forbes:

"NBA viewership for nationally televised broadcasts on TNT, ESPN and ABC through the Martin Luther King Jr. Day tripleheader is up 34% over the comparable 27-game period from last season, an average of 2.0 million per game versus 1.49 million, according to Nielsen Media Research data released by the league on Thursday."

As Andrew Marchand helpfully notes, however, this number is a bit misleading.

So the numbers aren't as high as that 34 percent would indicate. Given that more people watched basketball on Christmas this year than last, including this Christmas but not last makes a rather substantial difference. Marchand goes on to note that if you exclude Christmas this year in the interest of fairness, viewership is only up eight percent.

Not quite as high as that impressive 34 percent number. But it is still a surprise that those numbers are positive at all.

Sports ratings and viewership has been down across the board for everyone during the coronavirus pandemic, even the lumbering titan of the industry that is the NFL. There are all sorts of reasons for this (social justice initiatives are not one of them), and some sports have been affected more than others, but the fact that all the ratings are down has been the constant since this past summer.

Yet here the NBA is, getting into the green. It's even more surprising given viewership for the 2020 NBA Finals was down by over 50 percent compared to the previous year's event, and that happened less than six months ago. And there is no tangible or discernible reason why!

It would have made sense if viewership for the 2020-21 season were equal to or lower than the 2019-20 season through 27 games. At this time last year, COVID-19 was just a dot on the horizon most Americans weren't aware of and the presidential election cycle was just starting to really get going. There was some controversy around the China-Daryl Morey situation, but otherwise, the ratings didn't fluctuate too much in one direction or the other.

Compare that to this year, where we are still deep in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, which has generally meant worse ratings for sports across the board. The election was technically over before the NBA season began on December 22 but there were a lot of people pretending it wasn't, which drew eyeballs from ESPN to CNN or NBC or FOX. Also, some stuff happened at the Capitol two weeks ago that made sports seem pretty insignificant.

Despite all... this, the NBA is recording improved viewership. The return of Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, two of the biggest names in the game, certainly helps matters. James Harden has provided that coveted drama early in the season that makes fans murmur "this league" while consuming all the NBA content they can find. Most of the biggest markets (New York, Los Angeles, Miami) have great teams right now. It's a good recipe for a ratings stew that TV execs will find scrumptious.

But juxtaposed next to everything else that's going on, it doesn't make sense that the numbers are improved. But maybe that's the secret. None of this really makes any sense at all. People are whimsical and do not fit as neatly into boxes as the numbers would prefer. Maybe over the next 27 games everything will even out as folks decide to simply not watch basketball a few days a week.

Or the numbers could skyrocket. Who knows? Nobody really does. Ratings are an enigma that has no tried-and-true formula to understand. Other than the fact that everyone watches football, of course.

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