The Corner

Sports

How Solid Is the NBA Right Now?

No doubt there is an effort to enhance the perception of angry basketball fans on Twitter, as a lot of accounts are using the same “that seals the deal. I am no longer an NBA fan” phrases.

I’m sure there are a lot of bots and opportunists who are looking to stir up anger, and I’m sure there are a lot of people who never watched the NBA or who were anything that could fairly be called a fan who are play-acting an outraged diehard walking away from the game.

But the presence of a bot campaign shouldn’t persuade the NBA or anyone else that all negative reaction from fans is mythical.

The factor that Slate’s Josh Levin doesn’t want to acknowledge — and what I suspect is a factor in the drop in television ratings over the past decade or so — is declining interest in the ranks of previously casual or super-casual NBA fans. These are the kinds of people who get more interested when their local team is a real contender, or who tune in for the NBA Finals in primetime in late spring but otherwise don’t watch many games. Diehard fans dismiss these types as “bandwagon fans,” but their eyeballs count just as much in the TV ratings, and their money is every bit as green if they feel like buying a cap or jersey because their hometown team is doing well.

There’s no reason to think that bandwagon fans have monolithic political opinions, but if the league gets involved in some ludicrous hypocrisy on China, or offers a highly selective menu of slogan options for the backs of uniform jerseys, it might well rub some of these fans the wrong way. And that irritation might just be enough to get them to tune out for this year’s playoffs. (The ratings for the games played so far are down 30 percent from last year, averaging about 2.75 million viewers.)

This assumes the NBA stoppage is temporary and the league still has a postseason. Supporters of the current work stoppage and interruption of the playoffs can argue that almost all current NBA fans will remain fans, even if the playoffs are canceled. But just about every time a sports league has a work stoppage, lockout, strike, or interruption, it takes a while for the ratings, attendance, merchandise sales, and other indicators of fan interest to return to the pre-stoppage levels. Ask Major League Baseball how not having a World Series in 1994 worked out for them. Ask the NHL how not having a season in 2004 turned out.

Will most fans come back? Sure. But a lot of leagues have seen declines and long slow comebacks. Heck, you could argue that even before the pandemic interruption, the NBA didn’t have the cultural impact of the Michael Jordan/Larry Byrd/Magic Johnson era, where Jordan was the pitchman for every product under the sun, the NBA Finals audiences regularly reached 20 million to 30 million viewers, and the world saw the “Dream Team” in the Olympics as akin to seeing a real-life team-up of the Avengers.

Fans have options. They’re not going to invest much mental real estate in a league, sport, team, or player that doesn’t play games.

What makes this stoppage different is that it comes barely a month after a forced four-and-a-half month stoppage because of the coronavirus pandemic. Does the NBA really want to have another stoppage, barely a month after play resumed?

UPDATE: And, just as I finish writing this, apparently not, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.