With a presidential election among us and a virus ripping through the world, cable news ratings are up 72% in 2020.
The same cannot be said for sports.
The 2020 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat drew the lowest-rated Finals in history. Game 3 went head-to-head with Sunday Night Football, and the outcome was not what the NBA had hoped for. Viewership topped at 5.94 million — a 56% decline from 2019’s NBA Finals.
The 2020 World Series between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Los Angeles Dodgers was the lowest-rated World Series in history. The first two games of the series set record lows.
The 2020 NFL season has taken a ratings hit as well, but it is not as significant as the other two. Through four weeks of the season, NFL ratings have only taken a 10% hit overall and in some cases the NFL has seen an increase in viewership.
There’s a ton of different theories as to why sports have seen a decrease in viewership in 2020 with the most common theories being the election, the pandemic and the leagues’ different routes on handling social justice.
But I have my own: marketing and star power.
The NBA is the sport known for its star power, but the NFL has slowly started to catch the NBA for that title over the last couple of seasons.
The NBA has plenty of superstars; LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Steph Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard, James Harden and Kevin Durant are just a few of the overwhelming talent the NBA possesses. Young stars such as Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson and Jayson Tatum are coming into their own, and “secondary” superstars such as Anthony Davis, Paul George and Russell Westbrook are really good players.
However, out of all the names on the list I mentioned, only Antetokounmpo, Durant and Tatum currently play in the Eastern Conference while the rest are in the West.
In the NFL, top stars such as Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Josh Allen, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Lamar Jackson, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, Julio Jones, Tyreek Hill, Mike Evans, George Kittle, Travis Kelce, Davante Adams, Michael Thomas, DeAndre Hopkins, Derrick Henry, Christian McCaffrey, Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook, Jamal Adams, Bobby Wagner, Devin White, Patrick Peterson and Jalen Ramsey are all over the map.
As you can see, the list of NFL stars is a lot longer than the list of NBA superstars. Now, while there are way more players in the NFL, they’re easier to recognize because they are all over the country.
Every NFL team has at least one player they can market. Yes, even the brutally bad Jets, Giants and Jaguars, who have a combined record of 2-19 entering Week 8, have players you turn on the TV to watch: Sam Darnold for the Jets, Saquon Barkley (when healthy) and Daniel Jones for the Giants and Gardner Minshew and James Robinson for the Jaguars. I can’t say the same for the NBA and especially MLB.
Mike Trout, MLB’s best player, may not be recognized if he walked down the streets in Cleveland. MLB just does not do a good job at making their stars feel like stars, and it gives consumers no reason to tune into the product.
The other issue MLB has is its revenue structure. MLB is the only sport that does not have a salary cap, allowing “big market” teams such as the Yankees and Cubs to spend as much money as they want in free agency, and forcing “small market” teams like the Indians and Brewers to build through their farm systems. Not having a salary cap creates a competitive imbalance in baseball, and it makes retaining stars harder for smaller markets.
So while the NFL has seen a ratings dip in 2020 it should explode in 2021. The future is bright for the NFL. There’s stars all over the map, and they are all divided evenly between position and age. There’s no sense of losing star power anytime soon.
For the NBA, once James retires, the sport might be in trouble. While they have some young stars such as Doncic, Williamson, Tatum and Antetokounmpo, they’re not drawing as much as James. While NBA Finals ratings took a massive hit this year, all of the NBA Bubble’s best-rated games included James and the Lakers, and I don’t believe it has something to do with the Lakers. There were other large brands in the NBA Bubble, including the Clippers (who some people believe their best player, Leonard, is the best player in the NBA) and the Celtics, and they couldn’t compete with James.
The league thought they could go up against the NFL. They quickly learned they couldn’t.
And as for MLB, it’s now living up to its nickname: America’s Pastime. It truly is a pastime. People aren’t interested, and the slide will continue no matter who’s in the World Series until baseball figures out how to market their stars, create a fair revenue system and stops thinking that the speed of the game is the problem.
If there’s one thing we have learned throughout this sports season with COVID-19, it is that the best sports adapt, and the NFL has adapted to its environment and made a compelling product every single week.
Your turn, NBA and MLB.
Brandon Lewis is a columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Hi, I’m Lauren Sasala, a senior journalism student from Toledo. I’m also the editor in chief of The Kent Stater and KentWired this semester. My staff and I are committed to bringing you the most important news about Kent State and the Kent community. We are full-time students and hard-working journalists. While we get support from the student media fee and earned revenue such as advertising, both of those continue to decline. Your generous gift of any amount will help enhance our student experience as we grow into working professionals. Please go here to donate.