Why Are the NBA’s Ratings Going Down?

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In a piece published in the Athletic last week, Ethan Strauss reported that the ratings for network NBA broadcasts have declined by 45 percent since 2011–12. Games on TNT are also down by more than 40 percent, while ESPN’s ratings have gone down roughly 20 percent. And despite predictions that ratings for the league’s “bubble” games would soar, they’ve actually been lower than those for pre-bubble games. “Big trends tend to result from multiple factors,” Strauss wrote. Among the ones he cited: that players, coaches, and broadcasters have been highly critical of the United States and its government while remaining mostly silent about China.

On this week’s episode of Hang Up and Listen, I spoke with Strauss about the ratings decline, what evidence he sees that politics are a factor, and whether criticism of the NBA’s stance on China is sincere. A portion of our conversation is transcribed below; it has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Josh Levin: You’ve categorized explanations for why the ratings are down as excuses, so let me know if this is an explanation or an excuse. The NBA audience is younger than in some of the other sports that you’ve cited, and also more nonwhite than for other sports you’ve cited.

Ethan Strauss: I think there’s an element of explanation where younger people like the NBA, but the liking of the NBA doesn’t necessarily translate into them sitting down and watching two hours of an NBA game. If the NBA can figure out a way to make money off people enjoying seeing highlights over YouTube or highlights over Twitter, then, you know, good for you. It just doesn’t seem like they’ve been really able to do that.

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