Television ratings are one of the most archaic ways to measure what people care about. We’re more than 20 years into the new millennium. Who has time to be held to a live television schedule? I remember as a child watching an episode of Home Improvement when Tim “The Toolman” Taylor was trying to avoid the scores of a game that he’d taped on VHS. Nowadays if I want to watch Abbott Elementary, I catch it whenever during the week. I’m not beholden to when ABC airs it. Some weeks I might not turn on Hulu at all and I get a couple of episodes behind. I still manage to watch a substantial amount of sports, but sometimes there are conflicts and I don’t get to games on certain Saturdays, Wednesdays, etc.
Maybe not everyone makes the effort as I most times do to catch the game later, but it’s why we shouldn’t judge the NBA simply based on the success of its nationally televised games. And even if you want to do that, whatever hibernation NBA ratings fell into after COVID, springtime is here. Smell the cherry blossoms and refill your allergy prescriptions. NBA nationally televised games haven’t matched up to Sunday Night Football, or even Chicago P.D., but for the opening weekend of the 2022 playoffs, the American people watched in a way they hadn’t in some years.
This past weekend was the most-viewed opening weekend of the NBA Playoffs since 2011. I guess the masses are no longer as turned off by the players’ concerns about Black people being gunned down in the street by employees of the state as they used to be. Games last weekend averaged 4.05 million viewers, and that thrilling Game 1 between the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets averaged a shade under 7 million viewers. By comparison, in MLB, a league that doesn’t lean nearly as hard into social justice causes as the NBA, the only non World-Series postseason game that was definitely rated higher than Nets vs. Celtics — the first game of the first round — was the New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox single elimination wild-card game. Game 6 of the NLCS between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves averaged just slightly under 7 million viewers, similar to Sunday’s Game 1.
There has been much made of the NBA’s ratings in recent years. The reason for the decline, take your pick. However, the NBA’s biggest problem isn’t pleas for justice for all humankind, stars not playing for at least 10 of the 82 regular-season games, or the Real Housewives of the Potomac storylines of the league being more entertaining than LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges alley-oops. The problem, if there is one, is the same as all other television programming, trying to pin down how people watch TV in an environment with endless choices and peoples’ freedom to make those choices on their own time.
There were two network television comedies that both won five consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series, Frasier and Modern Family, neither was in its heyday by the series finale, both having not won that illustrious award for many years. The Modern Family finale was considered a smash hit with 7.4 million viewers in 2020. The Frasier finale, 16 years prior in 2004, had 25 million viewers.
Those are shows with just over 20 episodes per season that stretch from September to May. In the NBA, 30 teams play 82 regular-season games, and on all but a handful of days at least one game is nationally televised from October to mid-June on one of four different networks — the final months of course being the most important.
Athletes talk about how it’s not right to compare eras when it comes to who is the best player of all time. At least in sports the games are the same, give or take a few rule tweaks to make the product more entertaining and reduce injury — in that order. Television is being watched on devices and services that didn’t exist 10 years ago. Do you know when Disney+ made its debut in November. 2019. That’s right, one of the world’s most subscribed to streaming services debuted after the 2019 NBA Playoffs and World Series, and four months before an airborne virus changed existence as we knew it.
Amazon Fire TV, that adapter that can hold all the entertainment the world has to offer, did not exist 10 years ago. Frasier’s season finale aired three months after Facebook first launched and three years before the iPhone hit the market. Try scrolling through Facebook on a flip phone whenever it arrived at your college, and making a profile only possible with a school-provided .edu email address.
These days there’s Apple TV+, Discovery+, FoxNation for those longing for a time when police brutality was simpy network television entertainment on your local Fox affiliate, and don’t forget TikTok absorbing so much of your attention that its streams help dictate the Billboard charts, as well as YouTube tutorials for the washed and/or frugal among us who want to learn a new skill.
Some people take delight in poor NBA regular-season ratings, like a TNT Thursday game in March was ever competing with Friends. NBA basketball is an international product that people on social media can’t get enough of. Regardless of who’s exactly tuning into a game every night, people are very much invested in the league. Ask Turner how it feels about the investment it made in the NBA’s branded content back in 2008.
Also, with the most talent that the league has ever seen, and people more back to their regular habits than they have been since the Houston Rockets first started playing Russell Westbrook at center, the playoff television ratings jumped on Easter weekend like Ja Morant. The NBA is valuable, and with the right Finals matchup — the Golden State Warriors vs. Brooklyn Nets — there could be some 30 million-viewer games.
Last weekend was outstanding for the NBA, and as long as the Phoenix Suns and Miami Heat aren’t matched up in the Finals, it will be the highest-rated series since Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors in 2018. But even if the Finals matchup isn’t that compelling, the league is in a great place. They’re scouring the globe for talent, and much of the globe is interested in following that talent. It made for great television ratings over the weekend, but that was mostly more proof that this isn’t 1979. It’s 2022. The people are interested in the NBA. What did relatable, I’m sorry, fictional Mark Zuckerberg say in The Social Network: Facebook is cool, that’s a priceless asset.
The NBA is pretty darn cool. That makes it quite valuable regardless of how many people watch Games 2 and 3.