It just feels off.
Photo: Getty

Televised sports are entertainment — just like video games, Netflix, and pornography. The industry serves no other practical purpose in society. Farmers produce food. Builders produce homes. Professional athletics deliver fucking Mitsubishi commercials and $19 stadium beers and an irrational sense of tribal identity. In a pandemic, food and shelter matter. The consumerist spectacle? Not so much. Perhaps this is why fewer people care about the NBA this year, and golf, wrestling, and NASCAR, all more easily produced in today’s world, continue to lap the league in ratings.

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After the NBA joined forces with Disney and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is a goblin, the Orlando “bubble” plan was heralded as some watershed moment in our return to national normalcy. (Incidentally, “national normalcy” is a nonsense term that sounds nice, but means nothing.)

So the league set about building its imaginary fortress. And nothing could complicate the situation. Nothing except the mystical allure of Atlanta titty bar wings.


Then a funny thing happened. When the NBA booted up again — commendably COVID-free — interest quickly waned. Viewership for ABC’s flagship basketball broadcast declined by nearly a third, from 1.6 million when the league returned to 1.1 million just a week later.

As basketball’s TV ratings cratered, the world wondered: What went wrong? Theories quickly emerged, each tempered in the boundless reaches of human idiocy:

  • It must be the media’s fault! Those mangy fake-news liars are dragging down everybody’s vibe and undermining national interest in sports.
  • The NBA has gone Woke! With all that leftist pablum about holding cops accountable for murder, it’s no wonder they’ve got fans running for the hills!
  • The God Emperor Trump is playing 5D chess with these NPCs and totally owning them! Ratings are down because the NBA has felt The Donald’s wrath! Suck it, libs! Kneel on this!


Obviously these are not persuasive arguments in any sense, but rather compelling reasons to stick a railroad spike through one’s own head.

We can safely rule out media yammering as a major factor in the NBA’s ratings dip. Those in the press accused of “rooting against sports” now make convenient targets for lazy criticism. Yet these accusations are hurled and amplified by others in the business — all cogs in the same sports-media ecosystem they seek to indict. It is a hermetically sealed pissing contest that never ends. The pro-sports shouting and the anti-sports shouting are inseparable, and effectively cancel each other out.


The NBA’s recent activist streak is toothless by design, crafted specifically to avoid offense. Players, for instance, were encouraged to advertise their convictions by way of league-approved buzzwords, such as “EQUALITY” and “VOTE,” for display on their jerseys. Pieces of flair. Sure, stamping “Black Lives Matter” onto the court is nice. But it will come off the hardwood as soon as the NBA’s marketing people can get away with it, and it will happen quietly. Anyone inclined to boycott the league over these kid-gloves stances probably never watched much of it to begin with. When it comes to protests, for reference, the WNBA doesn’t fuck around.

As for 5D chess: Throughout Trump’s White House tenure, and even further back, the president has demonstrated an almost supernatural talent for accidentally increasing interest in whatever he means to harm. The Failing New York Times? Subscriptions are way up since the paper (regrettably) positioned itself as his antagonist in a kayfabe struggle. Sissy Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair? Broke subscription records after Trump’s shit-flinging. For Christ’s sake, Trump put $69 million in Megyn Kelly’s pocket when he made her seem briefly sympathetic to network audiences following a mocking allusion to her menstrual cycle. It’s all empty wind. He’s not swaying the zeitgeist, he’s pandering to one side of it.


With these three flights of bullshit thusly debunked, let’s move on: Why, exactly, is the NBA facing a ratings slump this year?

It’s because sports don’t matter right now. Particularly not when the product is half-assed.


Yes, sports have value. To own a major franchise is to print money, but that commerce is not derived from goods or services that are critical to life. Instead the value of sports is escapism — a distraction from the purgatory of existence. Televised sport is not necessary for survival. “Non-essential,” you might call it.

Yes, at first glance it seems clear that in an era of quarantine and isolation we would look toward sports, just as we might look to other forms of entertainment, for that much-deserved vacation from reality. Diversion is a more abstract concept than food, but it’s no less a part of the human condition. As long as we’ve been aware of our own mortality, we’ve been searching frantically for ways to forget about it. This is typically where sports come in, and this is precisely what we’re seeing from NASCAR and the PGA Tour, whose broadcast package can more or less function unimpeded in the face of social distancing mandates, and the WWE, which flatly doesn’t seem to care.


The NBA’s product, however, is compromised this year. It’s true for basketball and it’s true in Major League Baseball, where cardboard fans and piped-in crowd noise give rise to uncanny-valley disorientation and the very legitimacy of the season is already in question. These shortcomings are even more pronounced in the NBA’s productions, which, at this point, are taking place four months out of phase from a typical season, and feature meager arenas with manufactured Zoom fan hype. The quality is lacking, and it’s the fault of the leagues themselves, who led this push to return, only to step with mediocre offerings. Fans who had long clamored for sports to return, in any form, have gotten their wish, warts and all. Basketball is back, in the best form anyone can muster right now, and it’s not looking so hot. Meanwhile, high-quality streaming entertainment abounds elsewhere, and the sports industry now finds itself outgunned in the marketplace — nominally operational but not able to provide the extravagant flair that had long been its competitive edge.

Yes, playoff basketball is far more exciting than this regular-season trudge, and no doubt the NBA will see some of its viewership return once postseason rounds begin. Same goes for baseball. But at the NBA’s current pace, it would be a shocker if 2020’s postseason ratings measured up against historical benchmarks.


Ultimately? “It’s just not the same over Zoom,” said TNT stalwart Ernie Johnson, capturing the landscape perfectly.


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