But the players themselves don’t hold all the cards. Americans have been falling progressively out of love with the NBA, for instance, and the pandemic has only exacerbated an already difficult situation. TV ratings, mediocre after the season restarted, are down collectively by 40 percent on the TNT network, and 20 percent on ESPN, since their peak nearly a decade ago. Even more troubling is that the league’s network TV premium broadcasts ratings on ABC are off by 45 percent, what a former public relations executive for the NBA describes as a “cratering” of viewership.
It’s hard to ignore the politics, especially the increasing habit of NBA players and coaches of criticizing the U.S. and its citizens, even while many gave a pass to China—one of the league’s biggest new markets—during its crackdown on Hong Kong dissidents. “How much public commentary out of the league should be a lecture directed at people other than themselves?” former NBA executive Ethan Strauss asked recently.
Making up ground that the league has lost will prove even harder with the pandemic. The lockdown will cost the NBA at least $1 billion in revenue, and an MLB study earlier this year projected a potential revenue decline of $4 billion from the shortened season. And the poor TV ratings suggest that many sports viewers have missed watching NBA games less than the league might have anticipated.