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TV Ratings Are Down, but the NBA’s Popularity Isn’t

Last Updated: October 26, 2022
Viewership numbers obscure the NBA’s growth across several other venues, from social media to sneaker culture to the international market.

The NBA Finals are in full force, and even a slew of injuries to key stars hasn’t managed to rob us of spectacular finishes throughout the postseason. The Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks have both survived intense, memorable contests to reach this point, with more than a few furious comebacks, last-gasp defensive stops, and tip-in alley-oops required along the way.

With every night comes a new made-for-TV spectacle, and postseason basketball will always have value as a television product. But in the broad view, the NBA has experienced a drop in its TV ratings over the last handful of years. The numbers have recovered from their absolute nadir during the pandemic, but they’re still down about 25% compared to pre-COVID numbers. And Game 1 between the Deer and the Valley? Up 15% compared to 2020’s Lakers-Heat Finals opener, but down 35% from 2019.

It’s the kind of downward trend that has a chorus of critics wondering if the league itself is simply not as popular as it once was.

Yes, ratings have long been a major piece of how we track a sport’s popularity. But on their own, they paint an increasingly incomplete picture that ignores basketball’s special place in a bustling, ever-expanding landscape of subcultures and alternative media.

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Over the last decade, the NBA hasn’t just leveraged social media to broaden a global fanbase. It’s seized opportunities that other leagues either fumbled or downright declined.

Among its peers, the league is the best example of seamlessly immersing oneself into social media’s fast, easy, digestible ecosystem, from YouTube highlights to quick-hit Instagram videos to viral clips on Twitter, putting effort and resources into not simply posting quality content quickly, but making it easily shareable.

Highlights resonate best when they appear on your feed more or less in real time, creating the best possible chance to connect global fans of both the casual and diehard varieties. A clip of a clutch steal and slam or buzzer-beating three-pointer can be expected to populate on your social timeline with a short turnaround — along with a bounty of necessary stats, analytics, historic context, and commentary — such that fans can “watch” an entire NBA game on the vibrant hub known as Basketball Twitter and never miss a single thing.

In fact, opting for this route rather than watching games on television permits a viewer to learn a whole lot more and dive a whole lot deeper into their favorite teams and players by comparison, to say nothing of social platforms’ unlimited capacity for user curation based on specific topics, users, or search criteria.

And looking at the user numbers, basketball’s social foothold absolutely leaps off the page:

1. NBA: 57.1 million1. NBA: 37.7 million1. NBA 16.8 million
2. Premier League: 46.7 million2. Premier League: 27 million2. NFL: 7.68 million
3. NFL: 20.8 million3. NFL: 26.7 million3. MLB: 3.14 million
4. MLB: 7.8 million4. MLB: 9 million4. Premier League: 1.77 million
5. NHL: 4.7 million5. NHL: 6.3 million5: NHL: 1.63 million

That’s what social domination looks like.

If this looks wild to you, it really shouldn’t — particularly if you have a sense of how the NFL treats social users who dare to curate their football experience by clipping and posting their own in-game highlight videos or GIFs. They’ll rip your DIY content down as many times as it takes to remind you that they’re the only game in town. (And forget about embedding their official Twitter or YouTube highlights into a blog post. Not gonna work.)

The NBA not only doesn’t stop users from doing this, but they encourage it. They don’t see it as some kind of rights violation; they see it as free publicity. Sure, basketball doesn’t generate the same television juice it did as recently as 2019, and the league won’t soon hold a candle to the NFL in that regard. But since that year, as football has flung takedown notices at social media randos in every direction, the NBA’s total watch hours on YouTube have more than doubled.

The NBA is also the most fashionable league on the block, and has been at the forefront of promoting athletes who hone a distinct style, especially as it relates to sneaker culture.

Basketball shoes dominate sneaker and apparel apps like StockX, both with re-releases of past shoes and new releases alike. The NBA relaxed its rule that on-court shoes had to match the uniforms a team wears that day, allowing players like Milwaukee’s PJ Tucker not only to show off his amazing collection of rare kicks, but grow a personal brand all his own. In China, where the NBA is the No. 1 league, sneaker culture is so massive that new signature releases often include colorways exclusive to the Chinese market.

Every sports league aims to attract casual fans; they’re the ones that ultimately drive the biggest TV ratings. But the marketability of NBA players, whose faces notably aren’t obscured by helmets, hats, sunglasses, or visors, is simply bigger than what can be contained within even the most gigantic television screen.

Even a shortened 72-game regular season allowed the league to grow its sponsorship revenue by 6% year over year to nearly $1.5 billion, per sports consultancy IEG. Team valuations are up 14% year over year — more so than the NFL (11%). Amid discussions about the addition of a potential mid-season tournament, the NBA is reportedly on a mission to triple the value of its media rights package. And they’re serious about the ongoing expansion into the African market, too, venture already estimated to be worth $1 billion.

If you’re looking for evidence that a dip in TV viewers means the NBA’s popularity is legitimately faltering, good luck.

In reality, by embracing all these games within the game, the league is a poster child for a whole new 21st century standard for measuring excitement in sports.