Here’s a dirty little secret about the NBA: It’s losing market share. Every major sports league, with the exception of the NHL, has watched its ratings grow or stay steady during the post-COVID era. The WNBA just put up its best numbers since 2006; MLB’s numbers have risen across the board so far this season; the World Cup led to record viewership for both the MLS and NWSL; the women’s basketball Final Four games this year were the most- streamed college-basketball games ever (men’s or women’s) on ESPN+. And of course, NFL and college-football ratings continue to soar, simultaneously both propping up the entire sports-television industry and devouring it.
And yet even accounting for changing viewing habits, the NBA is at a historical low point. This season’s regular-season ratings are an improvement from Covid-era lows, but they’re still down 16 percent from a few years ago. Last season’s Finals ratings were up from 2021, but only by a little, and way down from 2019, pre-COVID levels. Those Finals — which featured the Warriors and the Celtics, two of the most popular and recognizable teams in the league — edged out the World Series in TV ratings, but just barely, with an 11.78 million game-three average to 11.47 for game three of the 2022 World Series. The baseball numbers were up from 2019 rather than down, by the way, which is to say baseball — that stodgy old game that had to radically overhaul its rules of play to stave off irrelevance — is closing the gap. And while TV ratings are often misleading as a gauge of a league’s popularity (and the ratings so far this playoff season have been up), in this case they track with other developments. You can get a sense of where the NBA is right now by the recent, relatively painless passage of the league’s new CBA. Whenever a league’s revenues are soaring, there’s inevitably a tooth-and-nail fight between players and owners to hoover up every last coin. This time? No one wanted to rock the boat. Times are too uncertain for that.
In the public consciousness — or, at least, the media consciousness — the NBA is still the cool sports league, the one with the Twitter beefs and the highlight packages and the relentless ESPN hype. (It helps that the channel has a billion-dollar deal with the league. For now, anyway.) But the league, while still strong enough right now, faces a future more uncertain than is generally appreciated.
Much of the problem comes down to stars, or lack thereof. You don’t need to see Air to understand that the NBA is built around boldfaced names. There was the Bird and Magic era, the Jordan era, the LeBron era, the Curry era, and now … what, exactly? Who is the next superstar the league will build itself around? Thrilling players abound, from Nikola Jokic to Joel Embiid to Giannis Antetokounmpo. But, crucially, none of them have yet made much of a dent in the public consciousness. This was one of the subplots of all the tumult surrounding Ja Morant this season: He was one of the “Who’s next?” candidates the league might potentially build around. Could he still be the guy? And if not, who will be?
But at least for the next fortnight, and perhaps even longer, the NBA won’t have to worry about that nagging question. It can rely on what has worked for so many years: LeBron James and Stephen Curry. Both are still operating at a very high level — just witness the incredible 50-point performance Curry unleashed in game seven of the Warriors’ series win against the Kings.
On a story-line level, one could argue the quarterfinals couldn’t have shaken out any more perfectly. There’s the Knicks-Heat (an irresistible ’90s throwback), the Suns-Nuggets (a triumvirate of stars vs. the two-time reigning MVP), and the Celtics vs. 76ers (a Northeast Corridor showdown between teams that can’t stand each other). But the Lakers-Warriors series is where the real drama lies. LeBron against Steph. The two most famous players in the NBA, two of the most famous players in NBA history, squaring off, likely for the final time.
It’s tempting to say that the matchup pits two eras of the NBA against one another. But that’s the existential danger here: For nearly every sports fan on the planet, this still is the LeBron and Steph era, even though they’re 38 and 35 years old, respectively. A league characterized by youth, energy, and athleticism is still run by men who are both older than Michael Jordan was when he won his last title, older than Larry Bird after he retired.
Last month, the NBA released its best-selling jersey figures, as it does twice every season. It should be no surprise who came in at Nos. 1 and 2:
Ask a friend of yours who doesn’t watch basketball to name an NBA player — any NBA player. The first one they’ll blurt out is probably Michael Jordan. The next few names might include Magic Johnson, maybe Bird. But LeBron and Curry are the only guys playing right now who almost certainly make the list. (Kyrie Irving also possibly qualifies, but for the wrong reasons.) Would your friend ever get to Jayson Tatum, No. 3 on that jersey list? Has your grandmother heard of Luka Doncic? Does she even know what a Nikola Jokic is? Meanwhile, Curry is so famous now that he’s the center of the advertising for a league he doesn’t even play in.
As great as he and LeBron are, the NBA is not a game for old men. Both of their teams struggled for most of the year before finally pulling it together as the playoffs approached, but there’s no guarantee that’ll happen again next year. One of these players is going to lose this series, and there’s a nonzero chance we never see them on this stage again.
Who’s going to carry the load then? Morant? Embiid? Someone else your grandmother doesn’t know? The NBA is a wonderful product for hard-core fans right now; I’ve been enraptured every night during these playoffs. But the cold truth is that hard-core fans don’t bring in the ratings and market share; superstars do. The league has fewer of them than it has in a long time. So what happens after LeBron and Curry are gone? Your guess is as good as anyone’s.
Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that NBA ratings were down 16 percent over the last year; they actually fell by that percentage since 2017-18.
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