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The Guardian Donald Trump says protests are hurting the NBA’s ratings. Is he right? The president has warned the league – and the NFL – against player protests. But how much political action affects viewership is unclearWith the presidential election only two months away, the occupant of the White House […]

The Guardian

Donald Trump says protests are hurting the NBA’s ratings. Is he right?

The president has warned the league – and the NFL – against player protests. But how much political action affects viewership is unclearWith the presidential election only two months away, the occupant of the White House appeared consumed on Tuesday by the shifting numbers and what they portend for the weeks ahead. The NBA viewership numbers, that is.“Basketball ratings are WAY down, and they won’t be coming back,” Donald Trump thundered on Twitter. Last Friday, two days after three playoff games were postponed when Milwaukee Bucks players decided not to play in protest at the shooting by police of Jacob Blake, a Black man in Wisconsin, the president warned reporters that political activism “is gonna destroy basketball”.The NBA’s ratings are lower than in previous years. However, the explanation is not as simple as Trump suggests, though fans’ opinions of player protests against police brutality do appear to splinter along partisan political lines.A YouGov survey of 7,425 American adults on 28 August found that 45% strongly supported the NBA teams’ decision while 21% strongly opposed it. Broken down by political leanings, however, 82% of Democrats supported the players while 64% of Republicans opposed their action.When the pollsters asked, “generally speaking, do you support or oppose professional athletes publicly expressing their political opinions?”, 60% of respondents were in favour and 30% were opposed. Again, party divisions were stark: 85% of Democrats were in favour while 67% of Republicans were against.But it is hard to quantify the effect on the NBA’s ratings of an Oval Office rage-tweet, a snide remark from a Fox News host, a problematic relationship with China or an avalanche of negative columns in conservative media, especially in this aberrant year.Though ratings are down (including before the impact of the pandemic), Jon Lewis, who analyses viewing figures on the Sports Media Watch website, believes that fans feeling repulsed by political activism “certainly would not be the primary reason, it wouldn’t even be the secondary reason, it would just be one ingredient you put into the soup of what is overall just a rough confluence of circumstances for the league.”There is the pandemic-impelled shift of playoff fixtures from spring to late summer, with August traditionally a quiet month for television viewing generally. The unusual number of games in the early afternoon on weekdays, when many people are working. All four first-round series in the Eastern Conference were one-sided. The sports-is-back buzz wore off weeks ago.And there is the sterile, uncanny, atmosphere of games without fans in the Orlando bubble. “This is a television show and it’s not quite the same show, the same environment, as it normally would be,” Lewis says.The three-day pause due to the player protests last week appears to have had little discernible effect on viewing figures so far, as Sports Media Watch reported. Game 5 in the series between the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday attracted 2.92 million viewers, compared with 2.98 million for the fourth game. The San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets drew 3.49m for a decisive Game 7 on a Saturday in the first round of last year’s playoffs. Overall, the weekend’s picture was mixed, with variations in start time and channel seeming to have a significant impact on viewership. While ratings on traditional cable television may be struggling compared with the highs of earlier years, as consumer habits change, that’s as true for NCIS or Criminal Minds as for the NBA. The numbers need to be placed in the complex context of a general shift in how people watch TV. Sports programming may even be set for a boost once normal life resumes, since the Nielsen ratings system is now measuring out-of-home viewing in places such as airports and bars.Risking alienating a portion of the fanbase by backing players’ political activism is the price of doing business in the social media era, believes Brad Horn, a public relations professor of practice at Syracuse University and former assistant director of public relations for Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers.“It’s like flying through turbulence,” he says. “Even if you’ve got all these storms around you as you fly, you have to get to that destination. I think that’s what leads some leagues to clarity, like the NBA.”Until the last couple of years, wading into divisive issues was anathema to organisations fearful of doing anything that might offend paying customers and politicians with sway over subsidies and influence over whether new arenas get built.When faced with controversies the typical corporate public relations strategy in sports, Horn says, was to “hit the pause button and see how this is going to play out… we just don’t need to go there.” While older fans may still think of sports as escapist entertainment, he adds, younger supporters expect companies – whether they’re retail brands or major league teams – to take strong and swift ethical stances. Silence and neutrality became untenable once social media allowed athletes to speak out unfiltered in an instant amid a national climate of rising political and cultural tensions.Besides, the NBA players, 80% of whom are black, would say ratings are not the league’s priority when they see people who look like them shot by police on a regular basis. The whole point of struggle is that it involves some amount of sacrifice. Whether the billionaires who own (and profit from) the teams agree with them is another matter, but many players believe the NBA’s commissioner, Adam Silver, is genuinely committed to social justice. One of the catalysts for change was the decision of Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, not to stand for the national anthem in 2016. Trump, then a Republican candidate, sought to make Kaepernick’s protest a campaign talking-point and blamed it for sinking the NFL’s television ratings, which fell by an average of 8% in the regular season.“I hope football and baseball are watching and learning because the same thing will be happening to them,” Trump added in his Tuesday NBA tweet.The NFL season starts on 10 September and protests are likely to feature. If Trump’s prediction comes true and America’s most popular sport endures a steep ratings decline, politics may well be the explanation. But the distraction factor of the build-up to a crucial election is a more likely reason than a calamitous conservative boycott. “It is pretty typical for ratings to drop in an election year,” Lewis says.

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