Image: Wikimedia Commons / Mack Male
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Mack Male

Opinion: the NBA is in a crisis of its own making

Sport is making a comeback after Covid, but not every sport is welcome. In America, people have started turning their backs on basketball – the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) ratings are declining steeply, and there’s one major reason. The sport has become very political – the fans aren’t keen, and it has trapped basketball in a crisis of its own making.

A report from City Journal outlined the staggering ratings hit of the NBA: “Americans have been falling progressively out of love with the NBA, for instance, and the pandemic has only exacerbated an already difficult situation. TV ratings, mediocre after the season restarted, are down collectively by 40% on the TNT network, and 20% on ESPN, since their peak nearly a year ago.”

The decline and lack of interest in basketball was described as “a ‘cratering’ of viewership” by one of the league’s former public relations executives.

Why are people not watching basketball? As ever, President Donald Trump decided to weigh in. He tweeted: “People are tired of watching the highly political NBA. Basketball ratings are WAY down, and they won’t be coming back. I hope football and baseball are watching and learning because the same thing will be happening to them. Stand tall for our Country and our Flag!!!”

The NBA has become a particularly vocal proponent of the Black Lives Matter movement

Trump may be appealing to his base with cultural rhetoric, but polling suggests that he is correct. According to a recent Harris poll, 38% of respondents are watching fewer games, or none at all, because “the league has become too political”.

Largely due to the stewardship of LA Lakers star LeBron James, the NBA has become a particularly vocal proponent of the Black Lives Matter movement. The phrase has been painted onto many courts, and several games were cancelled as a mark of solidarity when Jacob Blake was shot by police.

The league has also allowed players to display a word or phrase, selected from an approved list, on the back of their jerseys instead of their last names: it includes terms including “Anti-Racist”, “Say Her Name” and “I Can’t Breathe”. Every action has split the audience – as Jack Dougherty writes, “some viewers surely appreciate their activism, but many have bailed on the sport completely because of it”.

Outside of America, the NBA has found itself embroiled in another diplomatic row – this time, over its relationship with China. According to the Harris Poll, 19% of the respondents have stopped watching because they are concerned about the NBA’s association with China.

Time after time, the NBA has chosen the wrong side in this story, and for one reason – money. Around 500 million people watch NBA games in China, and the league has spent billions of dollars to expand its presence there. It’s a huge market, worth around $5 billion, and not one that the NBA leadership is interested in offending.

More negative stories about the NBA’s relationship with China continue to appear

Last October, I wrote about Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets – after tweeting support for the pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, the NBA looked at sacking him. In the end, he was forced to apologise, and the league released apology statements in English and Mandarin, but the damage was done back home.

As former Obama advisor Ben Rhodes said in a tweet: “Just consider that the NBA is suggesting that supporting democracy and human rights ‘does not represent’ the NBA or the values that the league supports. What values does the league support?”

More negative stories about the NBA’s relationship with China continue to appear. The NBA’s list of approved social justice phrases didn’t include anything about Hong Kong, and its online store simply won’t allow you to customise a jersey with the phrase ‘FreeHongKong’.

Meanwhile, an ESPN investigation revealed that NBA academies in China (one of which was essentially right next to an Uyghur genocide camp in Xinjiang) were responsible for the physical abuse of children, many of whom were Uyghurs.

Corbin Loubert, an ex-NBA strength coach who worked for the league in Xinjiang, tweeted that “one of the biggest challenges” of working in the province “was not only the discrimination and harassment I faced, but turning a blind eye to the discrimination and harassment that the Uyghur people around me faced”. One ex-employee compared the basketball academy to “World War II Germany”.

Another former coach said: “Imagine you have a kid who’s 13, 14 years old, and you’ve got a grown coach who is 40 years old hitting your kid. We’re part of that. The NBA is part of that.” And, when confronted with this information, the NBA’s deputy commissioner and COO, Mark Tatum, simply ignored it: “My job, our job is not to take a position on every single human rights violation, and I’m not an expert in every human rights situation or violation.”

The 2020 NBA finals have posted the lowest ratings since 2003

The politics will have an impact on the NBA, particularly in monetary terms. As City Journal notes: “The lockdown will cost the NBA at least $1 billion in revenue, and an MLB study earlier this year projected a potential revenue decline of $4 billion from the shortened season. And the poor TV ratings suggest that many sports viewers have missed watching NBA games less than the league might have anticipated.”

The 2020 NBA finals have posted the lowest ratings since 2003 – in part, it must be said, because Covid rearrangements have packed the schedule – but the downward trend is expected to continue.

In a brilliant bit of satire, Andrew Klavan writes that “baffled NBA officials are trying to determine why America doesn’t want to watch a group of multi-millionaires throw a ball around while disrespecting the country that gave them everything” (read the whole piece when you’re done here – it’s really good).

The point is, however, that sports audience generally don’t like activism, and facilitating it has caused viewership figures to plummet. It’s a fine line to balance and, if the NBA leadership doesn’t get it right, lack of money and interest genuinely risks killing the sport off.

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