The conservative news website the Daily Caller is not known, first and foremost, for its detailed and incisive coverage of the minutiae of the ratings of televised sporting events. In fact, I don’t remember them ever mentioning them at all in the past, let alone caring deeply about them. But in 2021, every decimal point of every ratings figure of every Jazz-Suns game has become front page news over at the Daily Caller and some other right-wing publications. The ratings are “in the gutter.” The NBA “went from being about winning games to lecturing America about politics.” The NBA “isn’t a friend of America’s.”
I cannot speak to the NBA’s personal friendship with America, but I do feel comfortable saying that the sport does, it turns out, very much value winning. The NBA playoffs tip off this week, and the league, like every sports league, is both looking to put together an electric finish to its season and also put a cap on a difficult, trying and utterly exhausting COVID season. TV ratings have indeed been down for the NBA this year, as they have been for every sports league during the pandemic, with the recent exception of… well, Major League Baseball, actually, the very sport that conservatives have been (wrongly) accusing of going woke with its decision to pull its All-Star Game out of Georgia because of that state’s new voter restrictions law. But the advantage MLB had was that its new season was able to begin right as the pandemic was receding in the United States, when people were in the mood for something that reminded them a wonderful summer was around the corner.
This NBA season featured the shortest offseason in league history, just more than two months, following the bubbled, long-delayed NBA Finals in October, four months later than the NBA Finals usually take place. (Likely a much larger reason for a ratings dip than “woke politics.”) The 2020-21 season began over the holidays, right in the middle of the biggest COVID spike this country would face, and it was rushed, chaotic, and, predictably, riddled with injuries to its biggest stars, most of whom were used to far more time to rest their bodies between seasons. This included LeBron James, the biggest name and draw in the NBA and quite possibly still its best player; LeBron missed a third of the season with injuries, and the Brooklyn Nets, which have three of the most popular players in the game with Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving, only had those three on the floor at the same time nine times all year. Games were played in mostly empty arenas, with fake crowd noise, stringent and isolating COVID protocols, and consistently disjointed play. It has been a long, frustrating, difficult year, and there’s no doubt that this 2020-21 season is one that commissioner Adam Silver and most of the league will be eager to forget.
But as these playoffs commence tonight, there’s reason to think the league remains in a strong position moving forward. It has proven itself the most dynamic and light-on-its-feet league, with a fanbase that has not adopted a reflexively antagonistic attitude toward it and its leaders. (A Cincinnati Reds player hit a home run this past weekend and silently agreed with a fan who said it was because he “imagined it was the commissioner’s face,” and booing Roger Goodell at the NFL was so all-encompassing that Goodell finally stopped pretending he found it funny.) NBA players’ social activism is at the center of the league’s reputation and yet undeniably quieter after the tumult of 2020; even LeBron himself has been a little more low-key politically this year. It has without question the best labor-management relations in all of North American professional sports — MLB is facing labor Armageddon this offseason—and its decision to promote its individual athletes over the teams they play for looks more and more like the correct strategy (of the top 10 most famous American team sports athletes in the most recent ESPN survey, eight of them were NBA players) and the one other leagues are desperately trying to emulate. Much of this was borne out of Silver’s signature insight, carved initially out of his first major decision as commissioner when he kicked Clippers owner Donald Sterling out of the league for racist comments he’d made (and essentially decades of despicable behavior), which was that to get players to trust you and secure labor peace, you had to treat athletes like you treat owners: As entrepreneurs with real skin in the game rather than employees. It has led to a rise in political activism, sure to upset the Daily Caller, but very much pointing in the direction sports have been pointing globally for decades now.
The result of basketball being the empowering, player-friendly, “cool” sport has been an explosion of new global talent in the league and undeniable sense that, as LeBron, who will turn 37 in December, nears retirement (or at least nears the thought of someday imagining retiring), the league is in good hands moving forward. Even with this halting, frustrating season that, much to the NBA’s chagrin, has its best teams in Phoenix, Denver, Milwaukee, and Salt Lake City, the playoffs look particularly enticing, beginning this week, which will actually feature a game between LeBron’s Lakers and Stephen Curry’s Warriors for the right to reach the next round of the playoffs through the league’s already wildly successfully play-in tournament. The league also features exciting playoff teams in all the major media markets, including Philadelphia, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, two in Los Angeles, and, astoundingly, two in New York City. (This is the first time both the Knicks have made the playoffs since 2013… something they were rewarded with a cover of the New Yorker, along with the cross-borough rival Nets.) The influx of talent coming into next year’s draft is considered to be among the best in years, and the league has an infrastructure in place — as evidenced by last year’s airtight, astounding-that-they-pulled-it-off-every-day bubble season — that’s the envy of every sports league in the world. Its player-centric value system has even extended to high school players, who are now encouraged to skip the indentured servitude of college hoops to come play in the NBA’s G-League, which will pay them real money to work under real professional coaches. The NBA, every year, comes a little closer to cornering the global basketball market, a market that expands a little more every time you look at it.
The NBA, obviously, is not perfect; its China problem, the primary criticism its right-wing critics bludgeon it with that the league actually deserves, isn’t going away anytime soon. And there’s no question this has been a tough year for the league all around. But on the whole, the NBA’s fundamentals remain incredibly sound. Despite the morass of this season, it still has its biggest stars lined up to shine on the largest stage, right at the time when the country is opening up and eager to watch games again. The NBA makes a big, easy, and dumb target for those trying to make cheap political points these days. But if you’re asking me which North American professional sports league I’d most want to be over the next 20 years? I’d still take this one.