Sticking to sports in the NBA
The league considers hushing political messages amid low ratings
Before resuming professional basketball after a coronavirus-induced pause, the NBA and the players association painted “Black Lives Matter” on the sidelines of the three arenas at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, where all of the season’s remaining games took place. Teams also allowed players to put select social justice messages on their jerseys. But those measures marked an extraordinary moment in time, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said.
“My sense is there’ll be somewhat a return to normalcy, that those messages will largely be left to be delivered off the floor,” he said. He added he understood “those people who are saying ‘I’m on your side, but I want to watch a basketball game.’”
Silver told ESPN earlier this month that social justice messages won’t appear on basketball courts next season. He said the NBA is committed to racial equality—“it’s part of the DNA of this league”—but how it shows that commitment will change.
A Harris Poll taken over the summer showed 38 percent of fans said they watched fewer NBA games because “the league has become too political.” Viewership of the six-game final between the LA Lakers and the Miami Heat this month fell by 50 percent from last year. The last game was the least-watched and had the lowest rating on record.
“Viewership for NBA Finals Finale Crash Nearly 70%,” President Donald Trump tweeted. “Maybe they were watching in China, but I doubt it. Zero interest!”
Others besides the president have criticized the league’s relationship with China, its largest foreign market. This past summer, an ESPN investigation revealed abuse allegations at NBA training camps in the country. One of those camps was in the western province of Xinjiang, where the Chinese government is accused of interning, abusing, and killing Uighurs and other minorities. A year ago, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted—then quickly deleted—support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous territory of China. In response, China yanked NBA games from the airwaves and Chinese sponsors halted advertising, causing about $400 million in losses for the league. At the time, the NBA said it found Morey’s tweets regrettable but supported individuals’ rights to express themselves.
While players could put “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Their Names” on their jerseys, the NBA store wouldn’t allow people to purchase custom “Free Hong Kong” jerseys this summer. After public backlash, the NBA said the phrase had been inadvertently prohibited. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., blasted the league for the jersey debacle and its pro-China stances.
Morey on Friday resigned from the Rockets. He said it had nothing to do with the Hong Kong incident, but many users on China’s Weibo social media platform celebrated. The NBA has worked to rebuild its lucrative business with the communist country since Morey’s tweet.
Some say the decline in NBA viewership is unrelated to politics, noting similar trends among all sports. According to Sports Media Watch, Major League Baseball’s postseason views are down 40 percent from last year. Viewership of the NHL Stanley Cup Final was down 60 percent. Far fewer people tuned into golf’s U.S. Open and horse racing’s Kentucky Derby than previous years. Even the number of people watching the NFL season is down 13 percent. Possible reasons include weariness of political messaging and the intense election news cycle. But screen fatigue and the pandemic upending people’s lives and schedules could also play a role. Disrupted and condensed seasons have led to a glut of live sports programming and overlapping events, and fans simply can’t watch it all.
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