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Home NEWS BLOGS NBA ratings are down, but why?
NBA ratings are down, but why?

NBA ratings are down, but why?


Dave Carney 10/8/2020

On the surface, you could look at the NBA ratings, during the Finals, the bubble restart, and even during the regular season, and be slightly alarmed. 

What is happening? Have people lost interest in the NBA?

The answers to these questions, of course, are broad and multiple. Some having to do with an expanding global audience, some having to do with a rapidly changing way in which to consume the league, some having to do with the social issues the league is taking on, and to be frank some have to do with the length of the 2020 season.

I want to start with one of the things that often gets overlooked, and that is the completely inaccurate way in which television ratings are derived. The Nielsen rating system is so inaccurate, it’s hard to get a full understanding of exactly what it is you’re looking at, unless you’ve been doing it for decades. 

Even the pros in the TV business struggle to break down the Nielsen ratings into something they can sell to clients (cable TV networks) who in-turn sell those numbers to their clients (advertisers). It’s an in-exact science that’s treated like the alchemy it is.

When you consider that as of 2018 Nielsen estimated there were 119.9 million TV homes in the United States, but they only estimated approximately 41,000 households, as their sample size from which to derive all of their information it makes me laugh. How is that representative?

Break out the calculator app on the smartphone, divide 119.9 million by 41,000 … See what I’m saying, not much real math there to go by.

Once we move away from the hilarious, ridiculous, and completely useless 2020 Nielsen rating system we can move on to the next biggest factor in the decline for television ratings… 


In the last year there were records updated, 2018, 33 million Americans cut the cord from cable. If Nielsen estimates there were 119.9 million households that were considered TV households, and 33 million of them cut the cord in one year, you don’t even need a calculator to do that math… That’s about a quarter of everybody gone, from a platform that had been traditionally relied upon to feed that woefully under served Nielsen’s rating system.

So where are the people going when they cut the cord? We all know, streaming services. Whether it’s Hulu, with its 3.4 estimated million subscribers, YouTube TV, which is in its infancy, and it’s estimated 2.3 million subscribers, Sling TV with its estimated 2.3 million subscribers, or the countless other apps, that deliver content to customers on demand or live. The streaming services have taken over.

Broadcast networks know that streaming is where it’s at too, they don’t care a lick about a cable company anymore. They’ve got Sling, YouTube TV, and Hulu, ready to deliver their live content to a streaming audience. And the networks have started their own streaming services, like Peacock for NBC, CBS has a rich platform online, and ABC is part of the Disney corporation… Enough said.

For the NBA specifically, a number of these factors, mixed with the league’s desire to put social issues at the forefront of their broadcasts surely must be recognized. The United States is also in the midst of a presidential election, and some estimates from Karp, a data collection firm that monitors political cycles, suggests that news and commentary shows were up 30% in viewership.

There’s also the very real, season length fatigue. The 2019-2020 season began in October of 2019. The NBA usually enjoys its final series, during the slow sports months, where only regular season baseball, and golf, are really going on. Yes the NHL is always there with the NBA, but vastly different audiences exist for those two sports. Having a season that’s lasted a full calendar year now, can burn out even the most die hard NBA fan.

Don’t assume that the NBA is alone in this when it comes to a decline in viewership. Ratings for the Stanley Cup Finals were down a WHOPPING 61% from last year, averaging just 2.1 million viewers. The final round of the US Open golf tournament had 3.2 million viewers, by far the fewest going back more than 30 years. Even the NFL which has dominated in some spots, and seems to be holding steady, has had trouble getting viewers in some of their windows, like Thursday night, which has recorded consecutive lows for prime-time games.

It would help if it wasn’t the Jets and the Broncos….just saying.

When you put it all together, the NBA’s ratings are in decline but by how much is really tough to tell. If you have cut the cord on cable, and you just want to watch the NBA, you can simply get that from the NBA League Pass. Twenty bucks a month or so will get you into a number of different options and you can always find these games on platforms that aren’t, the ones you’re supposed to go to, officially, but you know people do it anyways!

In all, I’m not worried about the NBA or it’s ratings. I’m not worried about any of these sports and their ratings. Ratings are so misleading, and now more than ever if you want to find something, you will. 

If you want to watch something you will. 

If you’re a fan of the NBA, you’re still a fan of the NBA. 

If you weren’t, maybe you never will be. Either way I think the NBA is going to be just fine.

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