Is player movement to blame for NBA ratings collapse?

It seems that the growth of super teams, which initially boosted the NBA’s profile into the stratosphere, may be responsible for turning spectators away as TV ratings have plummeted by up to 21%.


A “super team” is an elite team with three-or-more star players, at least one of whom was acquired after they had already become elite. The term was coined in 2010 following the birth of the inaugural super team, paving the way for players to change teams when they see fit.


LeBron James infamously decided to leave his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, to join the Miami Heat alongside superstars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for the 2010-11 season, forming the original “super team.” The decision left Cavalier fans bewildered and enraged. Most NBA fans were appalled with James’ move too, in the belief it created competitive imbalance. James was booed mercilessly by opposition fans during his tenure in Miami, leading sports website Bleacher Report to write an article in 2012 titled, “LeBron James: Miami Heat Superstar is the Most Hated Man in All of Sports.”  Fanbases felt hopeless, like there was no need to even play the games, the Heat seemed invincible. James thought so, declaring they would win multiple titles, specifying “not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven…”


The Heat’s “super team” won two championships across four seasons before James departed, returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Two years later, Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant joined the star-studded Golden State Warriors, sparking league-wide outrage like James’ decision. We had another unbeatable “super team” on our hands.


James pioneered player movement in the NBA. Players no longer feel obligated to spend their careers predominantly with one team. Players are chasing what’s in their best interest – money, location, on-court success – rarely do we see team loyalty anymore. Players like Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, and Kobe Bryant who spent long, illustrious careers with one franchise are probably gone.


The ripple effect from James’ decision back in 2010 had moulded a new league. A league where star players hold more leverage in negotiations than the franchises that pay their salary. Bill Simmons, founder of sports and pop culture website The Ringer, refers to this new chapter of the NBA as the “player empowerment era.”


In a league with 450 roster spots across 30 teams, this past off season saw more than 50% of players either change teams or not receive a contract renewal. It almost felt like players names were drawn from a hat at seasons end, indicating where they’d play the following season. It was madness. Oklahoma City General Manager, Sam Presti, last week said “volatility is kind of king in the current NBA. I don’t know if that’s good or that’s bad. It depends what your perspective is.”


The only perspective that truly matters is financially and so far, the NBA is taking a hit.


Television network TNT’s NBA viewership is down 21% compared to last year’s coverage, and ESPN games are down 19% in viewership since last season according to Nielsen figures. TV deals are the NBA’s most dominant source of income, accounting for $2.6b of their annual $8b revenue. Darren Rovell of sports media company, The Action Network, labelled the NBA’s decline in TV numbers “shocking”, as league officials and media members remain perplexed, theorising causes of the drop-off.


Many onlookers are blaming injuries for the ratings slump. So far this season, 63% of games on ESPN or TNT were missing one or more stars due to injury.


Fox Sports’ Clay Travis believes far left-wing politics has caused the most impact. Travis stated, “[The NBA] ban the word ‘owner’ for racial insensitivity, relocate the All-Star game for transgender issues, have players and coaches lecture fans on politics…and then bend the knee to China. It all adds up to tanking ratings and a big mess.”


NBA Commissioner Adam Silver blames the NBA’s cable-satellite model for the ratings woes, declaring “…the system is broken to a certain extent…You’re really pushing a rock up a hill…especially when that young audience we attract is disproportionately represented by that 20%.” Silver claims cable and satellite providers have lost 20% of their viewers over the past four years.


Sure, they’re all viable reasons for the downtrend in ratings and it’s likely there’s more than a singular influence effecting viewership. But, could this new trend of excessive player movement be a greater factor than people think?


Silver told reporters in July that he found the recent trend in trade requests “disheartening” and said it’s an issue that “needs to be addressed” yet didn’t address it when asked about the fall in ratings. With such crazy turnover, how are fans supposed to feel a connection to their team’s players? Especially when players continue regurgitating generic mantra’s on loyalty but don’t act accordingly. For example, Kevin Durant was asked about his future when playing for the Thunder, to which he responded, “I love it here, man…I don’t really think about anywhere else…I’m one of those guys that would love to stick it out with one team my whole career.” He left the following season. Or how about Kyrie Irving? At an event for Boston season-ticket holders, he announced, “…I plan on re-signing here next year.” He left the following season.


Supporting your team feels like you’re going to war alongside your players. You’re in it together. You ride the highs and lows together and you want to see players putting the team before everything; money, location, on-court success, even their own health at times. The jersey should be worn with pride. Instead we’re seeing what feels like rental players bouncing around teams every few years, treating the NBA like a dating scene and not a long-term commitment.


How are die-hard fans expected to stay enthralled with that? Imagine if the upcoming 2020 AFL season had Dustin Martin, Nat Fyfe, Lance Franklin, Jeremy Cameron, Patrick Dangerfield, Scott Pendlebury playing elsewhere and spouting their loyalty for their new clubs, only to jump ship when a greater opportunity presents itself. Could you ever feel a bond like Tiger fans felt with Matthew Richardson? Regardless of his flaws, the Tiger army would fight to the death in defense of Richo.


NBA player movement, as constructed today, is damaging the relationship between fan, player and team. The only way to combat this is to lengthen the duration of NBA contracts (perhaps changing the max contract from 5 years to 7 or 8 years) or introduce bonus incentives for demonstrating team loyalty.



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  1. Trevor Blainey says

    I think the NBA League Pass has more to do with it Mark. Most die hards stump up for one so they can watch their teams whenever they want to. LeBron James is a long way from being the forerunner of player movement. The NBA has been fluid in player movement for decades now with many notable players playing with several teams. Iverson, Barkley, Garnett, Pierce, Mourning, Drexler, Hardaway and Shaq all played for multiple teams. Even Scottie Pippen moved on after the Bulls golden age. As for the B graders they’ve always been shopped around. The games in most major team stadiums are usually sell outs.

  2. Florence Kamonye says

    Interesting story and from a sports fan’s perspective, pretty troubling. I just hope the NBA trend of swapping clubs doesn’t infect the AFL.
    Like your research Mark.

  3. For me, this article is just enunciating the trend of what is happening to sport in general its becoming a commodity not a true representation of a particular community. This is shown with Super Rugby dropping the place names for most of the franchises such as the Bulls of South Africa even though the Queensland reds was an established geographical brand!!.
    I think back to the heady days of the Canberra Raiders when big Mal Meninga and friends from Queensland joined with locals like Brad Clyde to create a super club and yet Canberra people will tell you in was the making of the club and the imports like Gary Belcher became “locals”, Yes they in their defence gave a lot to the community won the famous 89 premiership ( sorry Balmain fans) and the Broncos didn’t start til after they had left Brisbane. Before that as a Western Suburbs Magpie fan to see Manly bring out the cheque book every year to stop the building up of a quality team or Singo taking half the team including Tommy to Newtown which got them into Grand final.
    I agree with Florence i hope it doesn’t infect the AFL – even the NRL has mid season defections which makes the die hard fans queasy to say the least.

  4. MarkMiller93 says

    That’s a good point, Trevor.
    I hadn’t considered NBA League Pass, I’m sure that would account for some portion of the decline.

    The NBA has been fluid in player movement, but I think LeBron’s situation was different to those mentioned as he was just entering the prime of his career at 26 years of age. Most of the stars in the past who’d changed teams were 30 or older and sometimes encouraged to move on, like Garnett leaving the Timberwolves for example (he was on the fence and persuaded by team mates to compete for a championship in Boston).

    Younger stars who moved (Shaq, Mourning) were offered greater contracts elsewhere, whereas LeBron was facing max-contracts wherever he was. Orlando offered Shaq a 4yr/$55m contract. He declined, accepting a 7yr/$121m contract with the Lakers. You just don’t see star players get lowballed anymore.

  5. Mark, I tend to agree that player movement is a factor in all this – even though player movement has always been a feature of the NBA. They say that many fans (especially younger ones) now just support a player, rather than a team.
    I agree that the League Pass is also a factor. These are wildly popular.

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