Is the NBA popular enough?
And does the In-Season Tournament change that?
BY HENRY ABBOTT, BEN ARONSON, JAROD HECTOR and DAVID THORPE
The NBA has something of a broken business model: The key revenue has come from ESPN and Turner, who afforded those billions largely because everyone with a cable subscription paid whether they watched the NBA games or not. That meant the league and its broadcasters could keep the lights on, and salaries high, even without feeling the heat to innovate to make broadcasts more popular. But the world of entertainment is changing, ESPN and Turner are losing tons of money, and it’s not totally clear how the NBA’s next broadcast partners, whomever they may be, will pay the bills. With streaming? Supported by TV ads? Something new and different? And what about the fact that it’s very hard to get a young person to sit down and watch an almost three-hour game?
In that environment, the league has struggled to create meaningfully new and different products. Their big move just happened: the In-Season Tournament. We now know it led to a certain modest bump in viewership for this time of year.
Is that enough?
Jarod Hector, David Thorpe, Henry Abbott, and guest Ben Aronson debated all that for more than 90 minutes. Ben has long worked in media business strategy and knows a lot of stuff we don’t. We talked for more than 90 minutes, which was 15,000 words. As a courtesy to you, we have edited for length and clarity. But it got especially interesting on the topic of the NBA’s popularity.
Jarod Hector: Ben, the NBA sometimes talks about having a billion people who follow the sport in some way around the globe. What do you make of that number?
Ben Aronson: My take would be there’s a significant number of people interested in NBA players. I personally feel that, outside of China, interest in basketball is very, very middling. In England alone, I will tell you there is a minimal interest in basketball. They are highly interested in the athletes—the same way they’re very interested in our pop culture in general. They know [NBA] athletes far more than they know our football players, but they watch NFL football far more than they watch basketball.
In Manchester, in Leeds, in Newcastle—they all like LeBron James, but if you ask them if they watch a basketball game, it’s like never. They probably play basketball more than they play American football over there because they do have basketball hoops and you’ll see people shooting around, especially in urban lower-income areas that are more Black because there’s become a cultural absorption of basketball as a Black-identity thing (in the same way rap has), but they don’t watch basketball from a ratings perspective. So, I don’t believe that basketball as a sport is this huge thing. When you start getting into Italy and places like that, it’s like zero.
Henry Abbott: Okay, this is fascinating. People who follow this all the time just have this bedrock assumption that the game is popular and something that mimics the NCAA Tournament is just going to make it 26 percent more popular on TV, right? And so with a Year One bump in ratings for this time of year it feels like: Oh, well obviously, we’re off to a good start. But if the problem is making the game popular, as opposed to making the player popular, it sounds like we’re nowhere close.
Ben Aronson: Exactly. And you want to know what’s funny, Henry? One of the biggest jokes about Americans in the rest of the world is that we have no history. In England, people scoff at us for being so self-important for things that just started existing. You know what I mean? And so, thinking an In-Season Tournament is going to appeal to the rest of the world because they have in-season tournaments is a blind American thought—because we don’t acknowledge the history of their tournaments.
Henry Abbott: Like the FA Cup is more than 150 years old, right?
Ben Aronson: And the Champions League is about 70 years old. These things are rooted. They laugh at our playoffs. So, I think there’s a complete misconception about how popular NBA basketball is—even in the US—because the league conflates following and love basketball players and basketball style with people loving the sport.
Jarod Hector: So, that said, if the NBA is still trying to figure out how to make more money, they’ve got to do more things that highlight the players, right? Whether it be the whole, follow them along for an entire season and “Hard Knocks” style or whatever—if that’s what they want, give it to them.
David Thorpe: In the beginning, “Seinfeld” couldn’t find an audience. They used to always say the show is about nothing, which also meant like everyone understands these stupid, stupid inane things that Jerry Seinfeld finds funny. Well, all of that was total mythology: The reality is they wrote a story. And then they realized: Oh, we can write about whatever the fuck we want, and people will come watch if they fucking laugh. But it took years for that to happen.
And so, to Ben’s point, they need to give this thing time. The only way they can fix the In-Season Tournament is to keep doing it and then figure out what sells. They can tweak it, but you can’t fix something that’s not on the air.
Henry Abbott: Ben’s talking about basketball, not the tournament.
David Thorpe: I understand that. But if you end up creating something interesting, even in small part, that has a chance to infect everything else.
Henry Abbott: The insight is that people don’t watch basketball games. They don’t follow the game. They follow players in big numbers. That’s the big category. The little category is people who watch games, but that happens to be the category that pays the salaries, right?
Over a decade ago, I was in a conversation with a very prominent NBA executive who was explaining how it’s crazy that the NCAA Tournament turns a team like Davidson into a ratings winner—like a real cash cow. Thanks to the format, the NCAA makes the games and players far more interesting to the public than they would be otherwise. It takes a middling team and makes them important.