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NBA Ratings Are Down This Year And The Association Can’t Figure Out Why. Here’s A Theory.
LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on during the second half against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Staples Center on December 08, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.
Katharine Lotze/Getty Images

Ratings for NBA games are down across the three major networks that show the games – ESPN, TNT, and NBA TV, and the National Basketball Association isn’t totally sure why. Here’s a theory: China.

Variety reported that viewership for basketball is “down 15% year-to-year overall, according to Nielsen figures.”

TNT’s coverage is averaging 1.3 million viewers through 14 telecasts, down 21% versus last year’s comparable coverage, while on ESPN the picture isn’t much prettier. The Disney-owned network is down 19%, averaging 1.5 million viewers versus just under 1.9 million viewers at the same stage last year,” the outlet added.

As to why viewership is down, the outlet reported what “sources at all three organizations” told them: It’s because of the injuries.

“So far this season, 63% of games on ESPN and TNT (or 22 games out of 35) were missing one or more stars missing due to injury. Eleven of the 14 games broadcast on TNT have had one or more stars missing due to injury, and 11 of the 21 ESPN games have had the same problem, per the league,” the outlet reported.

Nowhere in its article does Variety mention another possibility; that people are sick of getting a dose of politics with their sports and may have been turned off this season by the NBA’s kowtowing to China.

In early October, just weeks before the 2019-2020 NBA season began, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for Hong Kong protesters. He was swiftly rebuked by the Association and deleted the tweet with an apology. The Chinese government and the Chinese Basketball Association threatened to cut ties with the Rockets, which would have been a huge monetary loss for the team and the NBA. Fears that China would pull funding and support for the NBA led the Association’s chief communications officer Mike Bass to release a statement on the issue:

We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable. While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.

Soon after, while NBA stars were in China to drum up support, the Association grabbed the microphone from a CNN reporter who was asking about Chinese censorship of the league.

The NBA then banned media access to its players while they were in China because it put them in a “complicated” and “unfair” position.

Basketball megastar LeBron James received more criticism for other players because, though he regularly espouses liberal political positions, he declined to talk about the China-censorship issue and instead tried to claim he and his teammates were the real victims in the scandal.

There are probably many reasons why NBA viewership is down. Injuries are probably part of that, so is the ability for viewers to watch the games in ways other than the three networks mentioned above. But just as ESPN and the NFL had to grapple with politics affecting viewership (though they refused to admit that was the case), one can’t ignore the idea that politics may be hurting the NBA as well.

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