Ratings Soar for Protest-Free NBA, While Protest-Friendly NFL Collapses

AP Matt Dunham Saints
AP Photo/Matt Dunham

Both the NFL and the NBA had high hopes and expectations, for the ratings gifts Christmas would have in store for them.

Yet, looking back in the rear-view, it’s clear to see that one league got delivered an assortment of shiny new toys. While the other took delivery of an exceedingly large bundle of coal.

According to Bloomberg:

The National Basketball Association’s annual Christmas games delivered some of their most successful overnight ratings in recent history. The league’s five games Monday, spread across ESPN, ABC and TNT, averaged a 3.35 overnight rating, up about 20 percent from last year’s Christmas games.

The early evening game on ABC — Oklahoma City 112, Houston 107 — drew a 4.1 overnight rating, the league’s highest for a prime-time Christmas game since 2003. In a rematch of last season’s championship, earlier in the day and also on ABC, the Golden State Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 99-92. The game drew a 5.5 overnight rating, making it the fifth-best Christmas game on the network.

The NBA was also up against a pair of National Football League games. Unlike the NBA, which is working hard to fix its place in Christmas tradition, the NFL only plays on Dec. 25 every few years, depending what day of the week it is.

Meanwhile, over in the NFL, “The prime-time NFL game on ESPN, a showdown between the Philadelphia Eagles and Oakland Raiders, drew a 6.7 overnight rating, down about 9 percent compared with the average Monday Night Football game this year.”

This is a really strong performance for the NBA. Nor, is it an isolated incident. In an article written on December 20th, the New York Post chronicles the NBA’s meteoric rise:

ESPN, which has telecast 30 games since the season’s Oct. 17 opener, said Thursday that average viewership has soared 18 percent, to 1.8 million a game, from this point last year. TNT, with 16 NBA telecasts to date, said its average is up 25 percent, to 2.1 million viewers. Even NBA TV, with 41 telecasts, is up 25 percent, to 365,000.

The averages, taken collectively, make for the hottest start since the 2010-11 season — the year LeBron James abandoned the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat.

But what explains why the NBA has surged in the ratings, while the NFL has tumbled? What is happening in the NFL—specifically before and during the playing of the national anthem—that is not happening in the NBA?

You’ve probably guessed already, but it’s protests.

The NBA has a long-standing rule that requires players and coaches to stand for the national anthem. Oh sure, plenty of NBA players and coaches are politically outspoken. LeBron James, Steph Curry, Greg Popovich, and Steve Kerr, have minced no words when it comes to their distaste for President Trump.

However, there are two critical differences between the NBA’s approach to the #Resistance against President Trump, versus the NFL’s approach. First, the NBA has not made politics a part of their in-game experience. They have been boisterously outspoken, but they’ve confined that speech to events outside the arena.

Like sports marketer Ben Sturner of Leverage Agency said, in reference to the NFL’s political and social controversies, “You don’t get any of that at basketball games. You just get action.”

Conveniently, this point also highlights the false analogy that many attempt to draw between Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick. As political as Ali became, he never made a paying customer have to sit through a speech against the Vietnam War, before a fight.

Colin Kaepernick had been posting vile, anti-American rhetoric on his Twitter account for weeks prior to sitting and then kneeling for the national anthem. Yet, no one cared. Why? Because he was keeping it away from the game and not forcing fans to be a part of it. When that changed, everything changed.

The NBA saw that, and wisely never changed their rule requiring players to stand.

The other crucial difference is who the political players in the NBA are. For the most part, they tend to be the best players in the game. LeBron James might be the greatest player who ever lived. Steph Curry is a phenomenal talent, and Kerr and Popovich are the two best coaches in the league.

In short, if you’re an NBA fan, or someone even remotely inclined to watch the NBA, you can’t not watch those guys.

Conversely, Colin Kaepernick is an easily forgettable face and name that in no way compels attention. Had Tom Brady, JJ Watt, Cam Newton, or Antonio Brown, been among the first to protest; things might have gone a bit differently in the NFL. People still would have recoiled at having politics intrude onto the game itself. Though, the reception to the protest movement probably would have gone a lot smoother.

NFL fans were not blind to the political leanings of their favorite players before Colin Kaepernick came around. However, an understanding and expectation existed. One in which the player understood his role, and the fan expected to get only that which he paid for: a hard-fought effort, and an entertaining game.

When players violated that trust and the NFL failed to correct them, the fans retaliated in the only way fans know how, they left.

And that shouldn’t surprise anyone.

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