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The sky isn’t falling, but interest in the NBA is

The NBA logo at center court is shown during the second half of an NBA first-round playoff basketball game between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020.
Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — It’s become a media pastime to speculate on the declining popularity of the NBA. It’s a sky-is-falling routine — the league isn’t going anywhere, despite its many glaring flaws and missteps and a declining product — but there is evidence that it’s losing interest.

TV ratings have been downtrending for years. The TV ratings for the 2020 playoffs have been down from the start, and they’ve been worse since the players’ brief boycott. A new Harris poll reveals that 38% of sports fans are watching fewer NBA games.

Respondents were given 10 choices and allowed to select more than one of them. Some 38% of respondents said the league is too political. The cashier at the grocery store doesn’t offer you his/her strong political statements. Neither does the bank teller and the pharmacist and the vet. Apparently, a lot of fans feel that NBA players should do the same.

The second most popular answer — selected by 28% of respondents — was “too boring without fans.” Maybe you’re one of those who would qualify that and say it’s boring all the time, but some find it boring because fans aren’t in the arena, even if they are watching from home.

The NBA, as well as Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League, have experimented with canned noise and virtual fans or cardboard cutouts of fans in the seats. The NBA selects 300 fans from the “home” team and their virtual images are broadcast onto the seats of the arena in real time. Apparently, this has not worked and, frankly, it’s a little weird, if not creepy.

The third most popular answer — coming in at 19% — is the NBA’s close business relationship with China, which struck a lot of Americans as blatant hypocrisy since the league postures for human rights at home but actively rejects criticism of China, its cash cow.

So NBA viewership has taken a hit this summer, but at least part of that could be blamed on extraordinary circumstances wrought by COVID-19 — the playoffs are being held much later than usual and many games during the first round were played during the day. They are also competing against an unbeatable foe: football. The NBA knows that’s not a battle it can win. The league had planned to push back the start of its next regular season to Dec. 1, but now says it is considering an even later start in an attempt to improve attendance.

All this notwithstanding, the league’s problems didn’t start with these weird times. Last year’s NBA Finals drew the smallest TV audience since 2007 and was down 19% from the previous Finals. TV ratings for the 2019-20 regular season through the All-Star break were down 13% from the previous season.

The NBA’s peak years for TV viewership were from 1987 to 1998, when Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan were running the court. Jordan retired in 1998 and viewership fell dramatically the next year and has never come close to returning to its former heights, even more than two decades later.

If you’re looking for more whys, there are many of the usual suspects.

• Lack of parity, which has always been a problem in this league — four clubs have won 50 of the league’s 73 championships and 12 teams have never won. The problem is worse now that superstars are allowed to collude to create super teams. The league could fix this problem with an NFL-like hard cap, but won’t do it. Let’s face it, the vast majority of teams have NO CHANCE of ever winning the championship. The only reason most fans watch the games is the same reason they might watch ballet or theater — not as a competition, but to appreciate the art. If LeBron James and the Lakers don’t advance to the Finals, it will be a ratings Armageddon. Does anyone doubt what team the NBA is rooting for?

• The game itself. Anyone who enjoys and understands basketball has to be put off by the NBA brand of basketball. The emphasis is entirely on scoring and scorers. Have you ever watched James and Kevin Durant play defense? It’s laughable, which is why James has been the subject of YouTube videos that show his lack of interest on the defensive end of the court. The officiating also discourages any type of serious defense. Just watch what James Harden and James get away with on offense.

• The sheer number of games. Most games are absolutely meaningless, not only because there are so many games but also so many mediocre and bad teams. This facilitates to the next issue …

• Load management. Perfectly healthy players take nights off to rest. They can afford to do this because, as noted, the games mean nothing and the opposition is weak.

The ongoing playoffs should address more urgency to win because finally the games have something riding on the outcome — but there remains the parity issue (too many bad teams).

The NBA has ignored all of these problems for years, but someday the league might be forced to do something. In the next few months, we’ll learn much more about its future prospects.