What’s the matter with the NBA… and, when they figure it out, how can the league solve it? Opinions vary. Some say it’s the lack of star power. Others point to a serious dearth of parity, to a league of haves and have nots.
That’s not to say there isn’t interest in the Finals. Games 3 and 4 of the NBA Finals, which pitted the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Golden State Warriors, drew huge ratings for ABC. But, while those games were watched by a good number of fans, they also illustrated what’s wrong with the NBA, and why viewership is down across the board.
The Cavs came in, once again, the Beast in the East. In fact, they have made it to the Finals four straight years… And they faced the Golden State Warriors. No other NBA team has come close to vying for a championship in years, and the best in the east can’t even win a game against the best in the west.
Sports leagues fare best when there’s a chance another team could win. Parity brings drama, and drama creates interesting narratives for commentators and fans to share.
Sharing narratives – from arguing about games and players to talking about them the day after – are a huge part of spectator sports. For more than a few years, now, the biggest storyline in the NBA is “what’s LeBron’s legacy?” Fans who are not diehard James fans are long-since tired of that.
Even young fans who were not alive to remember the glory days of the Lakes, Celtics, Pistons, and Bulls — when NBA drama dominated this time of year with “fantastic” action and suspense — are talking about the Great Ones: Magic, Bird, Jordan, Thomas, and Kareem. Others pine for Kobe and Shaq and Duncan. When fans are tweeting and talking about whether Jordan is better than Kobe while LeBron is on the court, that’s bad for the NBA. And it’s a narrative the league can’t seem to shake.
Coming out of yet another Golden State victory – they swept the Cavs this year – the “big story” in the NBA is if and when James will leave in free agency. Teams considered top contenders: San Antonio and Houston. If these or any other Western Conference team gets James, the NBA will have another serious problem to content with. When the best player and the best teams are all in one conference, the good rivalries die, and the good stories fade.
A trade might not happen, but if it does, the League will enter PR crisis mode. Hardcore basketball fans will tune in, but casual fans will drift away, leaving the league wondering how to manage having both the best player and the best team in at least a decade… and a fan base that’s just not interested in watching. And, even if it doesn’t, the League is still in a tough spot, trying to keep the interest of fans who believe the end is inevitable.