The ongoing NBA season seemed to offer fans a number of intriguing subplots after an eventful offseason that reshuffled rosters, but so far it hasn’t translated into more interest. Fewer people are watching NBA games on TV. Ratings are down significantly — 16% on ABC, 13% on TNT, 10% on ESPN, according to Sports Business Daily.

Fivethirtyeight.com used comments on Reddit to further quantify interest in the league this season, explaining that “NBA subreddit is among the most active basketball message boards on the internet. It has just under 3 million members, and it was Reddit’s No. 1 overall sports community by total activity in 2019.” 

The website concluded: “… the total number of comments made in October, November and December 2019 was 6% less than in 2018. Six percent might not seem like a big difference, but it is surprising considering that (Reddit/NBA) added more than a million new subscribers between the end of 2018 and the end of 2019.”

There is plenty of speculation about why all of this is happening, but nothing definitive. Here are some of the popular reasons (feel free to roll your eyes after some of them), as well as a few of my own (don’t roll your eyes).

Injured stars

The thinking here is that many people went back to watching “Better Call Saul” when they realized several NBA stars will miss the entire season or a significant part of it due to injuries — namely, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, DeMarcus Cousins and Zion Williamson. Nonsense. Did fans turn off NFL games when Tom Brady was injured? Or, maybe it IS why NBA fans turned away and the NBA gets what it deserves because the league focuses too much on marketing a handful of individual stars rather than teams and competition, and is indifferent to creating more of the latter (see parity).

The stars go west

LeBron James moved to Los Angeles last season and three other superstars followed him — Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. This means games start later for fans on the East Coast and they miss the games, or so the thinking goes. Nonsense. Aren’t fans on the East Coast generally fans of teams on, you know, the East Coast? And, besides, the Lakers — which traditionally have a national following — have been in Los Angeles almost 60 years. Are fans really going to stop watching the game just because a handful of superstars moved to a new time zone?

The cable theory

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban tweeted: “Ratings are down because all of our national broadcasts are exclusively available on cable, which is losing subs daily. Football benefits from being on broadcast TV, which is in every digital and traditional package ... in some of the biggest markets.” That might account for some of the ratings decline, but certainly not all of it. Let’s see, 44% of American households had cable service in 2019. Yes, each year millions are turning instead to streaming services. NBA games are available there, too, for a price. There are still plenty of games on national TV for the average fan — anyone with an antenna (remember those?) can get games on ABC.

Too many games

OK, now we’re getting serious. The NBA has always played a ridiculous 82-game season, but now the best players are actually sitting out games just to rest — “load management,” they call it. That’s how meaningless most of the games are. If the players think the games are meaningless, what are fans supposed to conclude, especially when there are so many other sports and entertainment options readily available (see “overexposure” section below)?

There are so many games, what’s another loss or two or three? There’s nothing riding on the outcome of regular-season games the way there is in, say, the NFL. Every story needs some tension in the plot; the NBA’s watered down schedule — a handful of good teams playing lots of games against a lot of bad teams — doesn’t offer that.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said last year that the league is considering a shorter season, but that won’t happen for years, if at all. The NBA should play a 50-game schedule and start the season at the end of the year, if not later, so it doesn’t have to compete with the NFL. Let’s face it, the NBA vs. the NFL is like the Lakers vs. the New York Knicks.

There are no true teams anymore

Ever since LeBron James took his talents from Cleveland to Miami, the NBA has had no true teams, only constantly mutating groups of players who collude to team up on a team of their choosing. It’s like choosing up sides on the playground. How can fans develop the kind of attachment they had decades ago when teams were largely composed of the same cast of characters year to year (Larry Bird’s Celtics, Michael Jordan’s Bulls, Magic Johnson’s Lakers, Stockton and Malone’s Jazz, etc.). In 2019 alone, there were 135 free agents, or about one-third of the league. There will be 139 next season. That’s a 61% turnover in two years.

A lack of parity

Look, unless your team has one of about a half-dozen superstars, it has no chance. You can thank James for that, too. Four teams have represented the Western Conference in 20 of the last 21 NBA Finals. Two teams have represented the Eastern Conference in 10 of the last 14 NBA Finals. Why can a fan invest in a team, financially or emotionally, if he knows it is virtually eliminated from championship contention on opening night? In a sport in which one new player can make a vast difference — unlike football — the free flow of players and player collusion has profoundly changed the game. The NFL is the shining example of parity and it has benefitted from it immensely, because fans in tiny Green Bay know their teams have the same opportunity as teams in New York.

Overexposure and competition

Everyone knows there is more and more competition for the entertainment dollar. Movie attendance is declining along with NBA viewership. Just in the sports arena alone, there’s a glut of televised offerings. Even high school games are being televised. It’s sports overload. And with 2,420 regular-season NBA games, plus more than 10,000 college basketball games, there is no shortage of basketball on TV.

Politics

The NBA has turned off at least half the country with its incursion into politics. The league is suffering from chronic virtue signaling, led by Silver, the Chief Virtue Signaler. The league punished North Carolina for creating a law that made it illegal for transgender men to use bathrooms designated for women and girls. The NBA stated support for players and coaches who pillory police and the president and speak out on other political and social causes. The league is super woke, but when its moral stance involved NBA revenue streams, the league reversed field. Remember when Houston general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for Hong Kong’s fight for freedom and the NBA called his remarks “inappropriate,” thus starting a worldwide controversy and a richly deserved backlash for its hypocrisy.

The bottom line: The NBA, which makes billions of dollars from its TV deals, might face some serious problems if the current downtrend continues.