The state of the NBA, and why things aren’t as good as they should be

In 1983, four years after its inception, local cable companies started paying ESPN five cents per subscriber. From that moment on, millions of American consumers could be relied upon to turn to and pay for the right to watch live sports on television.

That world, thanks to cord-cutting and streaming, is changing. But in sports, it’s not changing that fast. NFL ratings are up on TV for the second year in a row. Ratings for Monday night’s college football championship increased by 1 percent compared to last year.

Yet the NBA’s national ratings, despite perceived widespread anticipation after an action-packed free agency period, have dropped by 16 percent this season. Live-streaming makes up some of that loss, but not enough, and it doesn’t help that NBA League Pass is typically less user-friendly and more fussy than illegal streams. Don’t ask me how I know that.

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Not even LeBron playing for the Lakers is helping NBA ratings. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Not even LeBron playing for the Lakers is helping NBA ratings. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Regardless of how many people are streaming, the NBA as it stands isn’t maximizing its potential.

The problem isn’t popularity, per se. Per the NBA, global merchandising sales are up over 8 percent. Social media engagement is up. People are consuming the NBA. The problem is where they’re consuming it: online, where there’s far less money to be made.

The storylines cater to Twitter over television, undercutting the very advantage that sports has over everything else that threatens to grab our imagination: It’s our last collective experience, one of the few things that cuts through our increasingly niche consumption habits.

Viewers may tune out the Oscars, but sports can persevere. There’s a difference, after all, between a live event and an event you have to watch live. But a lack of superteams, the Twitterization of NBA coverage and a rise in injuries (and injury-prevention) have the NBA in danger of veering into the former category.

This is how the NBA became the stream-of-consciousness league for a stream-of-consciousness era — and how it might reverse course to be more TV-friendly again.

The demise of superteams

This offseason, superstars resisted the urge to form trios and joined duos. Parity was promised, and with it, renewed interest. But that hasn’t happened, and at its halfway point, the NBA feels rudderless without an ear-splitting dominant force to rise to the zeitgeist.

The length of the 82-game season has never felt more pronounced or tedious, in part because teams increasingly don’t take it seriously. But load management and meaningless seven-game Wednesdays have always been part of the NBA’s infrastructure. Neither phenomenon explains a 16 percent drop in viewers, when most casual fans have considered most games irrelevant for years.

Convince a sports fan that a moment could be etched in history and he or she will tune in. That’s what superteams do for the NBA: They make up for the lack of stakes in the regular season by putting on unmissable shows.

Superteams have actually shielded the NBA from facing just how broken the structure of the regular season is, turning the 82-game chaos into the background noise to the main event: Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, the rise and redemption of LeBron James, the Curry phenomenon. In the absence of an obvious headliner, the background noise has become the main event, changing the way people consume the sport. Instead of one big game, fans are turning to multiple 30-second highlights. Per the NBA, its YouTube channel has broken its own records for three straight months, with 160 million views in December. Fans spent 20.3 million hours watching the NBA’s YouTube channel, a 55 percent increase compared to last year.

People have more choices, sure, but people don’t gravitate to sports for an abundance of choices — quite the opposite. The teams that have driven the most fans and mainstream interest to the NBA were so good they eliminated choice from the equation. In the NBA, the abundance of choice merely means no team is good enough to transcend the muck.

The league has never had more talent, but if you want to know why either Kawhi Leonard’s Los Angeles Clippers, LeBron’s Lakers or Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks haven’t broken out of the NBA bubble, consider the idea that they temper each other’s greatness. They make each other look human in an arena where superhumans sell. On the other hand, Michael Jordan dominated a watered-down NBA and captivated America.

This is where the league won’t acknowledge what’s good for it. The structure of the collective bargaining agreement has always incentivized players to make choices that run away from the league’s best interests, because the construction of behemoths — despite their massive commercial success — runs counter to the interest of, let’s say, 22 of the 30 owners for whom NBA commissioner Adam Silver works. In 2016, after Kevin Durant joined the Golden State Warriors, Silver himself said that superteams were bad for the NBA. It’s no coincidence that those Warriors only existed because of an unprecedented cap spike, or that the Big Three in Miami never would have come together if Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron didn’t each take a pay cut.

The NBA would do well to embrace that lopsided dominance is what makes it tick.

The Twitterization of the NBA

According to the NBA, hours watched have increased by 23 percent on Instagram and 39 percent on Twitter, two perfect distribution services for bite-sized, explosive highlights. Christmas Week, from Dec. 23 to Dec. 29, set records online — 228 million video views and 53.8 million engagements — but less people tuned in on television compared to last year.

On Jan. 8, the NBA announced it extended a multiyear partnership with Twitter and TNT to bring more live content to the app, including the second halves of over 20 TNT games, an #NBATwitterLive stream with rotating commentary from a panelist of “NBA influencers.” The good news: The NBA is working to reap some profit from social media, and the league’s popularity isn’t a question.  But it’s a form of popularity that can’t be monetized easily.

Worse, the NBA is distorting its own entertainment value. Social media is supposed to supplement the on-court product. Some nights, it feels like the opposite is happening. The second screen increasingly defines what we see on the first screen.

Over at SLC Dunk, a Utah Jazz blog on SB Nation, Mychal Loman found that NBA Twitter’s biggest influencers — including the NBA, TNT, and ESPN — skewed their coverage to three teams: the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers, and Atlanta Hawks.

Maybe the NBA account tweets about the Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks because those tweets create more engagement. But engagement shouldn’t be the league’s goal. It should be the byproduct of a popular game. The NBA, its rights holders and the media at large have an opportunity to set the conversation toward growing the game on the court, and right now, they’re not taking it.

The storylines that dominate online exist, for the most part, in a closed loop. They open and close at the click of a button, not a remote control. You don’t need to tune into a game to follow Kevin Durant beefing with Kendrick Perkins, or Kyle Kuzma’s trainer posting an Instagram story about LeBron James.

Drama itself isn’t the issue. It can be a draw. Nobody’s actually ever been sick of hearing about a scandal. Just ask cable news. Or Twitter or Facebook. But right now, the eyeballs the NBA’s nightly soap opera attracts aren’t moving off Twitter for TNT.

Injuries … and injury prevention

Two top-five players — Steph Curry and Kevin Durant — have played a combined four games all season. Another, Kawhi Leonard, considers the regular season a six-month practice session.

Injuries to stars are a big part of why ratings are down, for reasons that are both random and structural. Star players are missing more games than ever, whether they’re tending to ailments real or imagined, and they’ll continue to do so until the length of the regular season is shortened.

On Tuesday night, the Dallas Mavericks were dusting off the Warriors on national TV. What would have been a marquee matchup was a relative dud, aside from Luka Magic, and there’s nothing the schedule-makers could have done in August to predict Kristaps Porzingis and Curry would be out.

The NBA can’t move national matchups around as flexibly as the NFL, but it’s a practice it’s undertaken more this season and should lean into in order to guard from the season’s lack of predictability. The schedule is deliberately made scarce on nights TNT broadcasts games, in order to showcase the marquee matchups. That should hypothetically be an advantage for TNT, but it ends up making it hard to get all those pesky Zion Williamson-less New Orleans Pelicans games off the slate.

In the future, both the NBA and TNT would be better served if they had their pick of the two best games in a six-game slate rather than a monopoly on all the action. If the NBA isn’t going to shorten the season, they at least need to adjust to the fact that teams are shortening it themselves.

More flexibility would also help cast a light on future stars.  It’s impossible to predict who will get hurt, and it’s hard to foresee who will pop. The league nearly tripled the Mavericks’ national TV appearances to 13 games this season. They couldn’t have known 30 would have been more optimal.

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