Why the 2020 NBA Finals saw the worst ratings in history

Explaining why Finals ratings and viewership dropped this year


Photo courtesy of NBA

On March 11, 2020, Oklahoma City fans were eager to watch All-Star Chris Paul and the Thunder match up against the Utah Jazz and their polished duo of Donavan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. But shortly after players started warming up at Chesapeake Energy Arena, a message on the Jumbotron screen declared the postponement of the game. As fans left the arena with dismay and confusion, the NBA later announced the suspension of the season as a result of the rise of Coronavirus cases nationwide, including many players in the NBA itself.

Fast forward to July 31, and fans will feel a sense of relief and alleviation. On this date, the NBA resumed its season in a restricted area of isolation known as the “NBA Bubble”. Although conditions were rigorous with an environment distinctly different from the common NBA arena, most players and fans alike were optimistic about being able to enjoy basketball once again.

After the 2019-20 season ended, it was time for the NBA playoffs. Cited by most players and fans as the best part of the NBA year, the playoffs give the opportunity to reveal which teams perform best under extreme pressure, with the Nba championship acting as the stake. Every second of a playoff game can directly impact the outcome, as one bad pass, missed shot, or defensive lapse can shape the final score.

With that said, it makes sense that many people would tune in and watch the 2019-20 Nba playoffs, especially considering the 142 days in which fans couldn’t watch basketball. However, according to Nielsen Media Research, Game 3 of the 2019-20 Nba Finals was the lowest-rated and least-watched Finals game in history. But why?

First and foremost, the NBA bubble schedule directly conflicted with the schedules of other major sports leagues.

For the 2019-20 season, the playoffs were originally set to start on April 18. This date was important as most other major leagues were not in the middle of their season at the time (NHL, NFL, MLB, etc). This guaranteed that 2 sports wouldn’t be broadcasted at once, ensuring fans wouldn’t have to “choose” between two sports to watch.

However, because the COVID pandemic caused the season to shift back, the new timetable of the playoffs was inserted in the middle of other leagues’ seasons, including the MLB playoffs, NHL playoffs, and the NFL regular season. Because of this, fans indeed had to pick which sport they were interested in, causing a decrease in ratings of both leagues and forcing both parties to suffer. But even worse, data shows that fans tended to disproportionately favor football games over basketball games. According to The Hill, the 5.6 million fans that watched game 3 of the NBA Finals on ABC “was less than half the number who tuned in for a regular-season Sunday Night Football match-up between the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks, which drew 11.4 million on NBC.”

Another reason for this vivid drop in ratings might have to do with the environment inside an NBA bubble playoff game.

I talked to high school basketball player and avid NBA fan, Zak Wood (10). He told me he has watched every NBA Finals game for the past 7 years until this postseason. When I asked him why, he said: “I believe that by not having fans in the arena, the entire atmosphere of the surroundings makes the game less enjoyable.”

“When you hear fans chanting “Defense! Defense!” for their team, it makes the people at home feel like they are in the game as well. Every play a team makes is amplified by the positive or negative reaction from the fans, especially during the playoffs when they are more engaged. There were plenty of close and intriguing games in the bubble, but it never felt like more than a scrimmage to me.”

Lastly, some think that the NBA has gotten too politically involved this year, especially following the death of George Floyd. The NBA has openly supported the Black Lives Matter movement, most NBA players kneel during the National Anthem every game, and some teams even protested and refused to play a game following the shooting of Jacob Blake.

Some fans didn’t think these actions were appropriate in the sports world, and thus, some just stopped watching. For example, Texas Senator Ted Cruz stated he wasn’t surprised by the decrease in viewers: “Personally speaking, this is the first time in years that I haven’t watched a single game in the NBA Finals.” President Trump also had something to say, tweeting “People are tired of watching the highly political NBA. Basketball ratings are WAY down, and they won’t be coming back”.

Altogether, it’s true that the NBA had a tough year. But give them credit – they were able to finish out the season, crown a champion, and keep everyone safe during the process. It took thousands of people working behind the scenes to accomplish a happy and healthy setting inside the bubble, and for that, all fans should be proud. Sure, statistics might not reflect the success of the bubble in comparison to that of other leagues; but the NBA’s ability to respond to its problems effectively and to prove their doubters wrong show their high capabilities, and this achievement will only act as momentum to further succeed in the future.