NBA Ratings Decline Points to Broader Trouble in TV Watching

The National Basketball Association finals, which concluded Sunday with the Los Angeles Lakers’ victory over the Miami Heat, averaged 7.5 million viewers onWalt Disney Co.’s ABC over the six games, a 51% decline from the same event last year.

The league struggled to attract viewers after a pandemic-delayed season that had the pros playing four months later than they normally would. The logjam of sports had LeBron James and Jimmy Butler competing for attention with football and playoff baseball.

Americans also have been more focused on the election and coronavirus, giving a boost to TV news networks. The audience forAT&T Inc.’s CNN,Fox Corp.’s Fox News andComcast Corp.’s MSNBC during the first five nights of the NBA finals was up 78% to 8.7 million, according to Nielsen data.

Due to the pandemic, fewer fans were able to watch in sports bars, an audience Nielsen now also tracks.

There’s another problem, though: not as many people tuning in at all. About 76.2 million people were watching TV on the first five nights of the NBA finals this year, a 9% decline from the same games in 2019. That 7.6 million-viewer slide is almost identical to the drop in basketball watchers.

Broader trends in entertainment consumption, including consumers canceling cable-TV subscriptions and watching more on-demand content on Netflix and other services, are likely playing a large role.

The rise of social-justice protests this year seems to have had little effect on sports TV viewing. The NBA led the sports world in the movement, with “Black Lives Matter” written across the courts at its Covid-safe facility in Florida and players’ jerseys featuring slogans such as “I Can’t Breathe” and “Say Their Names.” The racial composition of the postseason NBA audience barely changed from last year, with about 45% of viewers being White.

The slogans are unlikely to return when the league’s next season starts around January, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver saidlast week.

Other sports with fewer protests also saw declines. Viewers for the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup championship fell 61%.

— With assistance by Brandon Kochkodin

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