Nielsen, the company that measures TV ratings and other things, released their 2013 Year in Sports Media report a couple of weeks back. It’s mostly fluff, highlighting big things that happened in sports TV this year, and oh-by-the-way maybe you want to buy Nielsen’s products? Beyond the fluff though, there are some important insights.
The NBA regular season isn’t compelling enough for viewers
The 2011–12 season showcased the worst quality basketball in years, with some players spending the entire season out of shape, little practice time and exhausted athletes from back-to-back-to-back games. National NBA broadcasts averaged 1.6 million viewers that year. Last season that number declined 11% to 1.4 million viewers, and from the first half of the season it looks like this season’s numbers will be even worse. Fewer and fewer people are finding the NBA regular season to be compelling television.
In contrast, the NFL, MLB, NHL, MLS, NCAA Football and motor sports all saw their ratings rise last year. This isn’t some malaise affecting all sports television, it is specifically targeted at the NBA.
I’m not sure if the solution is to do a better job marketing teams, a shorter season, a shift in which games are nationally televised and when, or some other solution, but it is clear that something needs to be done. The NBA’s current TV rights deal expires in two season, but negotiations are beginning in earnest now. It would be disappointing if the new contract doesn’t radically change how the NBA approaches TV.
The upcoming TV rights negotiations are about a lot more than just money
The current deal sees ABC, ESPN and TNT pay the NBA a combined $930 million a year to broadcast games, and projections for the new deal generally fall on the lower end of a $2 billion to $3 billion range. But they’re about a lot more than that.
While the NBA’s regular season TV ratings may be declining, it has a huge advantage on the other major sports: demographics. 29% of NFL fans are under the age of 34, while 45% of NBA fans are. 37% of NFL fans are over 55, while only 25% of the NBA’s are. Baseball’s fan base is even older than the NFL’s.
These differences are even more striking when looking at how fans engage with the sport. According to Nielsen’s numbers the average NBA fan is 14% more likely to have visited YouTube and 66% more likely to have used Twitter than the average American adult. More people tweeted about the NBA Finals than the Super Bowl. The NBA has a much smaller fan base than the NFL, but it is much younger and more tech savvy.
I’ve written about how the NBA is more forward-thinking about technology and new media than other sports governing bodies, and Nielsen’s report only reinforces the importance of that moving forward. The NBA can do a lot of things to chip away football fans or otherwise gain new ones, and one of the keys to that will be finding better ways to deliver games and basketball-related content to fans though ways other than their TV.
This is so important that the NBA should establish a bidding process during rights negotiations that doesn’t solely reward the bidder who puts up the most money. The NBA needs to re-vamp its terrible League Pass service; it should continue to help teams, carriers and local broadcasters implement live local streaming; it should cut a deal with Twitter and other social media platforms to share highlights like the NFL did; and a million other things I’m not smart enough to have even considered yet. Having broadcast partners that pay more than lip service to these ideas is worth much more than ringing a couple million dollars more out of them.
Even more evidence that Heat fans are great
Miami Heat fans get slandered worse than any other fan base in the NBA. Their fair-weather fan rep is so deeply ingrained that not one but two different NBA teams have mocked Heat fans this year. The schadenfreude that was had when Heat fans left Game 6 early last year and missed Ray Allen’s game winning shot is only surpassed in volume by Western journalists tweeting about problems in Sochi. NBA fans agree on few things, but mocking Heat fans is one of them.
There’s a tendency for those that live in cold-weather cities to consider those that live in ones with nice weather as lesser people. Los Angeles is a Hollywood fantasyland, Florida exists only as a nice place to play golf. Nobody that lives there is “real”, unlike the surly and real New Yorkers. It somewhat mirrors the liberal, urban persuasion to consider those that live in the South to be unsophisticated dolts. Miami is a fake place, and therefore Heat fans must be fake.
Which has never made any sense if one looked at even an iota of fact. During the last 15 years the Heat have been bottom 10 in attendance only once, and have spent half of that time in the top 5. Heat fans attend games more than almost any other fan base. The Heat also have one of the richest local TV contracts—I believe it is only behind the Lakers’ and Knicks’ in value, but firm numbers are pretty sketchy—meaning the local broadcaster konws a lot of people watch Heat games.
The Nielsen report adds one more nail to the “Heat fans are fair-weather” coffin. It lists the top NBA fanbases, which it defines as, “% of the population that has watched, attended or listened to the team in the past 12 months”. The Heat place third on that list at 53%, behind only the Thunder and Spurs. Over half of the population of Miami interacted with a Heat game in some capacity last year. That’s more than the “real” fans of New York, Boston, Oakland or anywhere else can say.