A tone deaf and uninspiring talent pool, politicized media and stars and burgeoning hostile alternative commentators are tearing down a sport that was a global powerhouse not long ago. Is it too late to save pro basketball?
Among the main professional sports, the NBA has outdone every counterpart in its capacity to squander away fan interest. Many observers including Anthony Brian Logan just this week, have made the point that the increasingly “woke” take on politics by many of its premier stars like LeBron James is the main culprit.
While this is undoubtedly a factor, and the NBA’s attempt to tap into the #BlackLivesMatter movement as a means to gain fans who are politically motivated has if anything translated into lower popularity, this is only one of many trends that has sunk a league that in 1998 achieved a 22.3 rating (35.89 million viewers) for the decisive Game 6, meaning that close to one out of every four American viewers were tuning in to watch the Chicago Bulls play the Utah Jazz. To put this into perspective the 1996 presidential debates between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole had an audience of 36.3 million people meaning that in the 1990s the TV audience for professional basketball approached but never reached that for the most competitive nights of a national election.
This was the window of time through which the NBA was able to at least approach being the new national pastime. Entertainment events have an ebb and flow of popularity but certain performers have the capacity to bring them to new highs or lows. The Super Bowl has routinely lapped both the NBA Finals and presidential debates, attracting ratings shares of 40+ points every year since the 1972 contest between the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys. The game established itself in 1967 as the premier sports entertainment watch event and has since then been consistently solid with small dips. By contrast the World Series has seen ratings decline from 32.8 in 1978 and 1980 (44 and 42 million viewers respectively) before dropping to 16.4 (24.5 million) in 1989. Since 2004 the Fall Classic has only logged more than 20 million fans once, in 2016 when the Chicago Cubs faced the Cleveland Indians. In 2019 less than 14 million viewers on average watched the Washington Nationals win their first title against the Houston Astros, the worst total since 2012. It even had one night (Game 4) hit an embarrassing 5.9 rating.
Would NBA executives seeking to deflect attention to their failing enterprise be able to at least take solace in the similar decline for Major League Baseball? The answer is a definitive “no”. NBA’s mass viewership is a much more recent phenomenon and the cliff that it has fallen off is much more steep than baseball’s. In the 1980s, CBS was broadcasting many NBA playoff games on tape delay, including four games of the 1981 NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets. Thanks in large part to the sensational rivalry between the league’s two stars of the era Magic Johnson and Larry Bird the NBA finally earned the right to have their games broadcast live, and by 1987 when they met in the finals for the third time in four years the Finals was logging an average 15.9 rating for a six-game series that the Lakers won (see Sports Media Watch for all Finals ratings).
But this was just a set up for what would really blow the NBA up globally. The history of the league is generally defined as Before Michael Jordan and After Michael Jordan as the 6-6 shooting guard from North Carolina took TV audiences by storm during the 1990s. There were number of factors that made Jordan the unique phenomenon that he was, apart from his own unrivaled talent:
- Magic and Bird, while the greatest of their time, were taking over well established powerhouses in LA and Boston. Jordan’s dynasty with the Chicago Bulls established a completely new brand with a team that until then had been a laughingstock.
- Through endorsements for Gatorade, Hanes and most importantly Nike Jordan redefined the branding aspect of athlete superstardom.
- With the 1992 US Olympic “Dream Team” led by Jordan and including other superstars like Bird, Johnson as well as Karl Malone and Charles Barkley, NBA basketball became globally popular. Audiences from Mexico City to Tokyo would tune in to watch the greatest players of their generation annihilate teams of unknowns from Croatia and Angola.
How does a sport go from such thrilling highs like in the 1990s to today’s lows where the 2020 NBA Finals game have dipped to a paltry 1.5(!) rating in Game 3 between the Lakers and Miami Heat? As ABL says, politics for sure play a factor but so do such natural conflicts as labour trouble. In baseball’s case much of the decline in viewership was due to strikes in 1981 and 1994 that alienated young fans that were soon shown that many players are in the game for money rather than the glory. The NBA experienced a lockout in 1999 following Jordan’s second retirement and NBA Finals ratings did drop to an 11.3 average, but part of the reason for that was the comparatively bland matchup between the San Antonio Spurs and New York Knicks. A second lockout shortened the 2011-12 season to 66 games but ratings for the Miami Heat-Oklahoma City Thunder NBA Finals were barely behind the previous season’s when Miami was defeated by the Dallas Mavericks. But in the intervening years (2013-2018) Finals ratings remained steady. So what happened?
LeBron James: When the X-Factor turns toxic
After 1998 and the second Jordan retirement NBA fans were looking for the same spark in a single player, and his third stint from 2001-03 with the Washington Wizards showed that Father Time had conquered him. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal reestablished the Lakers dynasty and Tim Duncan and Tony Parker built a new one in San Antonio, but neither had the electrifying appeal as Jordan’s Bulls. It is unfair in retrospect to rank the fierce competitors Bryant and Duncan far behind Jordan because they were constantly being measured according to his accomplishments so soon after his departure. In 2003 however a new player was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers who was heralded as the new superstar for the post-Jordan era. LeBron James, often stylized as “King James”, had all the makings of being the NBA’s saviour.
LBJ’s high school career at Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School was covered extensively by both the national and Ohio media, and it was a given that he would be drafted straight into the NBA like Bryant and Kevin Garnett. Where did it go wrong with LeBron James, who is now commonly seen as the cause of the most recent NBA ratings decline? For starters, the makings of it started in how the Cavs and the NBA treated James at the beginning. In 2005 the team was sold to Dan Gilbert who promptly cleaned house and hired Mike Brown as the team’s coach. From then until his 2010 departure LeBron James would be not only the face of the franchise but also the most powerful person within the organization. This was never the case for Jordan who needed coach Phil Jackson in order to make the team around him a winner or and was often at loggerheads with GM Jerry Krause. As for Kobe Bryant, he also was taken under the wing of the Lakers’ dominant executive, Jerry West who had built the Showtime Lakers of the Magic Johnson era. West had traded for Bryant from the Charlotte Hornets in one of the most pivotal trades in league history and eventually lured Phil Jackson and Shaquille O’Neal to LA with the promise of more grandeur out west. Early in his career Kobe had to contend with being overshadowed by Jordan while contending with a wealth of competitors like Allen Iverson and Gary Payton. This mirrored Jordan’s slow rise to the top in the 1980s against Bird, Johnson and Isiah Thomas.
But while LeBron would also have a difficult climb to his first championship, he was hyped every year as being on the cusp of it. In 2007 he would reach the Finals and his Cavaliers were promptly destroyed by the Spurs in a four game sweep. During the subsequent three years James’s Cavs would be unceremoniously dispatched in the playoffs twice by Boston and once by Orlando. In the 2010 offseason he ditched Cleveland for Miami in a controversial free agency move called “The Decision” joining pal Dwayne Wade and former Toronto Raptor Chris Bosh to form a new super team. This act of ditching one’s first franchise instantly made his doubters claim that he could never be equal to Jordan or the other NBA all time greats. Jordan himself panned it by comparing “The Decision” to a hypothetical where he would call Magic Johnson and Larry Bird to create a super team. The distinction was not lost on many: While both LeBron and Jordan were driven by their egos, His Airness wanted to win by defeating his competition while The King was willing to join them.
As it so happens, James’ gambit paid off as he would reach four Finals and win two championships in Miami before heading back to Cleveland reaching four more Finals series and winning one more ring. But along the way the same pattern remained. He was not a “franchise” person and in Miami he at one point asked team president Pat Riley to take over from head coach Erik Spoelstra. Riley, who had won NBA titles as a player, assistant coach and head coach, and was aware that indulging James’ request to axe Spoelstra would by default render the coaching staff and front office puppets of the star player. Back in Cleveland, James would be enabled once again by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert. Willing to win at all costs, in 2016 Gilbert fired coach David Blatt while the Cavs sat in first place in the eastern conference and only months after they had made it to the 2015 NBA Finals. The move was at James’ behest replacing him with his favourite Tyron Lue. The move paid off as the Cavs won a title that year against Golden State. But after losing the 2017 and 2018 Finals to the Warriors, LBJ’s wanderlust got the better of him. Once again, his new move had the makings of a major ego trip.
Showtime Meets the King
Everyone knew that if LeBron James left Cleveland in the 2018 offseason it would be to Los Angeles. It was a new decision that rested on a number of new facts:
- With the 2016 title behind him, James had fulfilled his promise to bring a championship to Cleveland. “The Decision 2” would therefore engender less bitterness to his hometown fans.
- Already in 2011 James had started to have ambitions to a career in non-sports entertainment when Nike produced a series of animated shorts known as the LeBrons featuring a group of different aged characters patterned after his personality. Eventually it was adapted to CGI graphics that resembled a cheap knock-off of The Sims and centered around such ridiculous plots as saving a junkyard from developers.
- Having already owned a home in the LA suburb of Brentwood for years, playing there would give him a more convenient way to pursue his show business ambitions such as starring in a Space Jam sequel. Such plans had been in the works since 2014.
- The Lakers would be better placed to attract more talent than Cleveland, and playing in the purple and gold would cement James’ legacy with a marquee franchise.
It proved to be a major mistake, at least in 2018-19. The LeBron Lakers were a flop as James missed 26 games with an injury and the team missed the playoffs with a 37-45 record. By playing on the West Coast, James made sure that the vast majority of the league’s top tier talent was in the Western Conference and distributed between LA, Golden State, Houston, and Oklahoma City. The move destroyed the ratings for eastern time zone games and TNT’s regular season games saw a 12% dip. Accordingly the 2019 NBA Finals dipped to an average rating of only 8.8, down from 10.0 in 2018 and the lowest number since 2009. In response NBA defenders claimed that it was made up by viewership gains in Canada thanks to the Toronto Raptors entry into the Finals.
King of Buckets, not Votes
But the truth is that here the political angle and the role of LeBron and others does start to have an obvious effect on the NBA viewership. After the 2016 Finals, when LeBron James penned an op-ed for several Ohio newspapers endorsing Hillary Clinton, his candidate proceeded to lose the state by the worst margin of any candidate since 1988. This was a breathtaking rejection of the celebrity endorsement effect, and it is apparent that since then James has taken out his frustration against Clinton’s opponent Donald Trump. He vowed never to visit Trump at the White House on numerous occasions and in 2018 made the promise again on behalf of both the Cavs and their Finals opponents, Golden State.
James’ embrace of political causes had already started in 2014 when he and other Cavaliers players wore “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts during warmups before a game against the Brooklyn Nets in tribute to Michael Brown, the Ferguson, MO teen who was shot and killed earlier that year. The claim made by Black Lives Matter activists that Brown had had his hands up was later proved false by an investigation by President Barack Obama’s Justice Department. But rather than process the fact that he had been hoodwinked like millions of Americans by a false representation of a tragic incident for political ends, LBJ has continued to double down time after time. In 2017 James answered a question about Trump voters while in Cleveland by answering that he believed they voted as they did because they doesn’t think a lot of people “was (sic) educated”. If this did not cause the NBA to fear losing fans, why did one of the league’s own reporters write a long response warning that James had crossed a line?
While it is likely that he is a true believer and therefore is impervious to the facts, another possible motivation could be that supporting the Black Lives Matter agenda has opened new revenue streams for him. In 2018 James, embroiled as usual in his beef with the president, took part in a “collaboration” with ESPN’s black-themed blog site The Undefeated and Uber called Rolling with the Champion. In it, he took an Uber ride with ESPN personality Cari Champion and rival Kevin Durant through Akron while talking about social injustice and politics before All Star Weekend. The framing of the interview was an excellent snapshot of the cognitive dissonance of superstar athletes bloviating about how unfair the world is while getting fawning interviews sponsored by a massive corporation. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis this year and the video being released of police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on his neck, James proclaimed that “We’re hunted” referring to black men. This is coming from a mega-millionaire who in 2018 called the police to investigate racist graffiti being daubed on the gate of his Brentwood mansion. . . after it had already been painted over.
Sir Charles as Dr. Feelgood? Not enough
With idiotic spectacles like that which have only become more ubiquitous in 2020, it is no wonder that in this year’s Finals the NBA’s ratings are melting down like Chernobyl. Each game of the series has set new records of futility. Game 1 logged a 4.1 rating (7.41 million viewers) followed by Game 2 (3.6, 6.61M viewers) and Game 3 3.1 (5.94M viewers). For Game 4 the ratings rebounded (4.4, 7.54M viewers), but in Game 5 apparently the viewership dipped again to just 5.7 million viewers that watched Jimmy Butler’s Heat eke out a series extending upset win. Last night the Lakers won Game 6 but the 1.9 rating (5.1M viewers) made it yet another milestone of failure, down 57% from 2019’s series finale. This means not only that the finals has had its worst viewing audience since a San Antonio-New Jersey game in 2003 that earned only a 5.2 rating (8.06 million viewers), but that within three games in the same series almost 1.5 million fans tuned out. For perspective, the 2019 finals between Golden State and Toronto only saw a dip from 13.38M to 12.79M viewers between Games 1 and 4. The 2018 Finals saw a decline from 17.67M to 16.24M viewers between games largely because it was an easy 4-0 sweep. While the current Lakers-Heat matchup is not very compelling, the loss of interest is not likely due to the poor competition alone. Indeed, the flagging viewership has now generated a Twitter war between Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. As he is on the cusp of his fourth championship ring, LeBron James’ legacy according to writer and ardent critic Jason Whitlock of Outkick the Coverage will be “killing the NBA’s popularity in the USA”. He also added “didn’t have to be this way. Sad.”
Whitlock knows that politics isn’t the only thing hurting the NBA, but he’s not wrong. What could have prevented this catastrophe? Athletes like LeBron James should be allowed to express their political views, but when they begin to blot out the actual event where they are performing they become a distraction. They also have to be mentally secure enough to ignore the criticism from social media. Few athletes have the presence of mind to walk that tightrope successfully, but one of them is Charles Barkley. In the 1990s Barkley openly flirted with running for office as a Republican, but in 2006 he ditched the party claiming that it was ignoring real life issues of improving schools and policing poor neighbourhoods. He condemned the Ferguson looters as scumbags in 2014, and agreed with the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the Trayvon Martin shooting. Barkley has supported both Democrats like Barack Obama and Republicans like John Kasich. Last month he condemned the #DefundThePolice movement stating succinctly that such a policy would leave poor black communities completely defenseless to criminals. He is an equal opportunity critic who doesn’t seem to go along with the crowd, and while this doesn’t mean he should run the country it makes him perfect for TV commentary. There are other figures within the sports media like Barstool Sports’ Dave Portnoy or Outkick the Coverage’s Clay Travis and Whitlock who would be excellent counterweights to the damage that LeBron and many other #uberwoke athletes have done to the league. But unlike them, Barkley is a Hall of Fame basketball player who is not only mentally tough and credentialed, but has established himself as a premier commentator on basketball as well as current events after his career as a player. Sadly he sits in that position by himself, and therefore the NBA has no effective second opinion to cure itself of the social justice disease.