The NBA has come under scrutiny for low ratings during the recent NBA Finals. Current political unrest, activism and general political atmosphere has led the NBA and other professional sports leagues to decide what type of political image they will portray to their fans. This has forced a lot of questions about what effects this may have on viewership. This is a conversation we’d all like to have, but the reality is that the NBA has been declining in regular season viewership for years — even before this historically political year.
It is quite shocking to find out that throughout the 1995-96 season, the NBA averaged a 5.0 (around 5 million TV views per game) television rating. In 2016-17 that number dipped below 2.0 (around 2 million TV views per game) for the first time. This past season posted a 2.2 rating, less than half of what it was 25 years ago. There is a larger problem in the NBA and it has nothing to do with politics. Over the last 20 years the league went from must-see TV during the regular season, to simply must-see NBA finals that only happen once a year.
There are many factors to this massive decline in viewership but It’s impossible to ignore the complete lack of parity. Players have consistently been teaming up creating super teams, and as a result there are only a handful of teams that are good enough to compete for a championship every year. This significantly lowers the quality of NBA games throughout the regular season, and even through the first few rounds of the playoffs.
Another factor has to be the attitude of some NBA stars towards regular season games. It is interesting that there was no such thing as load management in the 1990s, and today we see a lot of it. The NBA regular season has become a softer, less competitive game than some of the other major sports, and the ratings have taken a big hit. That is why I believe the NHL will eventually take over in revenue and in viewership.
Not only has the NHL grown exponentially since the 1990s, it is continuing to grow even more today. After recently adding two new teams that cover two major sports areas (Seattle Kraken and Vegas Golden Knights), we can assume there will be some spike in viewership looking towards the future. Seattle was the last part of the US map that wasn’t covered by the NHL, which will be huge in TV Contract negotiations in 2021 (after their current NBC deal expires). The new contract negotiations would likely include a joint media deal with more news networks, which would allow for more highlights and streaming on devices, akin to what we see with the NBA currently. This would undoubtedly cause considerable growth in the NHL fanbase, and genuine intrigue for the sport in the US.
Even considering all of that, there is still the question of the quality of games and whether or not it is enough to actually draw in fans. Ask any current NHL fan and they will all agree. Almost every team has a shot to win the cup, and even the weakest teams still insist on playing competitive hockey. Whether it’s the season opener in October, or two teams out of playoff contention late in March, every game is contentious. This level of parity that is found in the NHL allows for teams in low-popularity areas to attract die-hard sports fans when they make deep playoff runs. We’ve consistently seen this throughout the last 20 years, for example the Nashville Predators playoff run in 2017 and the huge fan base the Vegas Golden Knights gained throughout their playoff run in their inaugural 2018 season. When teams are successful, they draw in new fans across the country, especially young fans.
It is difficult to imagine the NBA ever being overtaken by a league like the NHL. But when you consider the numbers, and dig deep into the wants of sports fans, it is easy to predict a huge rise in popularity for the NHL, and a big drop for the NBA. This is why the NHL will overtake the NBA as the third most popular sport in the US. It will never be America’s favorite pass-time like Baseball, and it will never be ingrained in the culture like Football, but Hockey is undeniably entertaining and competitive, and will win over many genuine sports fans across the country for years to come.