Metacognition: Declining ratings and rethinking the NBA’s game-centric model


Maybe the answer to declining ratings is for the NBA to stop worrying about television ratings and realize itself as an extended universe for fans to interact with.

At a base level, the NBA is a machine for making money. The inputs are players, coaches and organizations, run through the artificial mechanism of an extended, nine-month basketball tournament. As this machine runs, it collects money from fans who attend games and buy merchandise, and from advertisers, sometimes through the middleman of broadcast partners, jockeying for the attention of those fans.

For the past few months though, there appears to be some minor friction in the gears. Through the first quarter of the NBA season, television ratings for national broadcasts were down 14 percent, year-over-year. Local broadcasts were also down seven percent.

This decline has been attributed to all sorts of factors — from the devaluing of the regular season, to cord-cutting and changes in viewership patterns, to a presumed increase in competitive balance this year without a dominant team (this last argument conveniently ignores the fact that the 35-6 Milwaukee Bucks currently have the fifth-best strength-of-schedule adjusted point differential in NBA history).

Although the NBA doesn’t appear to be in real danger of a catastrophic collapse, declining ratings will, at some point, equate to declining revenue, indicative of a machine that is no longer running at peak efficiency. Even before this decline, the league had been working proactively to address fan discontent, implementing or at least discussing tweaks to things like free-throw shooting rules, playoff seeding, lottery odds, the spacing of the schedule, player rest, and even a mid-season tournament to add juice to the regular season.

It’s worth noting, though, that essentially everything the league has considered or taken on, could be characterized as an attempt to improve the existing machine. But maybe it’s time to reconsider how the machine works altogether? What if one of the answers is to acknowledge that actual basketball games may no longer be the league’s most compelling product?

Harry Potter has long since outgrown its initial framework as a series of fantasy young adult novels. It is ten (soon to be 11) movies, a Broadway play and a bazillion dollars in merchandising revenue from associated paraphernalia. It is a theme park where we can go and walk in the footsteps of fictional characters. It is collegiate Quidditch tournaments, pop-up themed bars and restaurants, river cruisesmuseum exhibitions and tens of thousands of devoted cosplayers. The cultural bulwark of J.K. Rowling’s imagination is not her books, it is the fictional universe she created, one that fans want to interact with in any way they can.

It is not a perfect analogy, but if you step back a bit you can see the NBA as not just a professional sports league but as an extended universe. The games and the slow-motion funnel from Opening Night to the Finals is are what give the universe its structure, but that doesn’t make them the most compelling aspect.

Fifty-five million people follow LeBron James on Instagram, at least a portion of whom will probably spend more time watching him dancing in the weight room or sipping wine than will watch him on the court for the Lakers. For reference, only 43 million people follow the NBA’s official Instagram account. The league’s top players have become mainstream celebrities, self-sustaining incubators of interest even off the court.

Ratings may be declining this season but the offseason that preceded it was the buzziest example of what has arguably become the buzziest part of the NBA calendar. Only a handful of fanbases get to plausibly imagine themselves winning a championship each year. Far more fanbases can plausibly imagine themselves landing a franchise-altering talent in free agency.

In media coverage, declining ratings have often been equated with declining interest in the league, writ large. A more thorough explanation could be that interest in the league is changing, migrating from some areas to others, arriving through other platforms and medium, and moving from a focus on the games and their outcomes to the extended NBA universe.

So, what if instead of figuring out ways to juice revenue by improving the game experience, either in person or on television, the league fully embraced the understanding of itself as a rich fantasy universe that people want to interact with and put energy into figuring out ways to monetize other parts of the experience? To be fair, I don’t know exactly what this looks and the answer is certainly more complex than more merchandise, which is already an established portion of the revenue pie.

The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame pales in comparison to Harry Potter World at Universal Studios and it’s hard to imagine cruises filled with retired NBA greats really transforming the financial relationship between the league and its fans. But reinventing what happens between fans and the artifice of the league outside of an arena has much more room for growth, both in dollars and cultural currency, than trying to squeeze every bloody drop from the stone of television or streaming viewership.

Leaning in this direction is problematic in some ways. The element of honest competition is and should always continue to be integral to how the NBA defines itself. No one is crying out for scripted, WWE-style pseudo-games and veering to close to that line would come with other costs. But the NBA could acknowledge and accentuate the value of the soap opera-esque aspects of its ecosystem without actually becoming one.

Maybe the decline in ratings is a blip. Maybe the incoming revenue from gambling which will inflate the importance of every game, albeit in a slightly different way than the league has tried to this point. But the NBA, which has prided itself on its ability to innovate, also has an opportunity right now to rethink its relationship with its audience and what its fundamental product is. The NBA will always be built on basketball games but that doesn’t have to be its essential offering. Change is coming and a 14 percent dip in ratings might be just a harbinger of an audience in flux.

Maybe I’m being naive in assuming the league doesn’t already think this way. But I can’t shake the idea that a persistent focus on game-interest and the game experience misses a huge piece of what people actually pay attention to and what draws them to the league. What if it’s time to meet the fans where they are instead of trying to draw them back to where they used to be?

Metacognition is an irregular column series, thinking about how we think about basketball. Check out the entire project at A Unified Theory of Basketball.