In Washington D.C., it’s not uncommon to see the Wizards as the “fourth place” team of the “Big Four” sports leagues. However, it’s not necessarily a given that the Wizards will stay fourth place just because the NBA is a very popular sports league.
I wrote earlier this year that DC United could overtake the Wizards for fourth place sooner rather than later. And depending on how you view things, the Washington Mystics could be in position to overtake the Wizards after their WNBA championship last October.
But let me cut to the chase for this piece. The NBA’s television ratings are taking a hit, whether nationally or locally on regional sports networks (RSN’s). And guess which team took the biggest hit with its local ratings? The Washington Wizards!
According to John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal (paywall), the Wizards ratings on NBC Sports Washington have dropped 57 percent year over year. To be “fair” to the Wizards, the NBA’s national TV rating declined by 20 percent on ESPN and declined by 23 percent on TNT year-over-year. But it’s alarming that the Wizards’ local decline was more than twice as much as the national ratings.
For some perspective, the Golden State Warriors had the second-worst RSN ratings drop in the NBA. Golden State’s ratings dropped by 51 percent year-over-year on NBC Sports Bay Area. However, you can explain their decline largely due to star player injuries (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson) and a 4-18 start to their 2018-19 season.
First, here are things that DO NOT explain why the Wizards have the biggest local ratings drop in the NBA.
- C-A-P-S, CAPS! CAPS! CAPS! — The Washington Capitals currently lead the NHL’s Metropolitan Division with 45 points (and a 20-4-5 record), well ahead of the second-place New York Islanders who have 38 points. But the Capitals aren’t “to blame” due to their success. Last season, they had 37 points (17-9-3 record) after 29 games, which isn’t as good as this year, but ... it’s still a very good record. And if you’re a DMV native, you know that the Capitals run the winter sports scene here. They have for well over a decade — even when the Wizards were doing well in recent seasons.
- Cord-cutting — More people, especially young adults are less likely to watch television than in the past. They’re more likely to watch national Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Prime programs for their entertainment — or watch/read national news in the evening instead of tuning into local anchors like the late Jim Vance and Doreen Gentzler on WRC-TV back in the good ‘ole days. However, cord-cutting induced viewership declines are happening everywhere, not just D.C.
For the Wizards, I can come up with these possible explanations for their ratings drop being as dramatic as it is.
- The Nationals’ World Series games were on when Wizards games were on — The Wizards’ early regular season games may have been negatively affected by the local baseball team which won the 2019 World Series. In fact, each of the Wizards’ first four regular season games happened on the same day and approximate time as a World Series game, including Oct. 30, the day when the Nats won the title or when the Wizards hosted their home opener against the Houston Rockets. This likely explains why the Wizards’ local ratings dropped so significantly, especially since Washington only played about 25 percent of the season so far.
- A west coast road trip during Thanksgiving — The Wizards have played four regular season games that started at 9 p.m. or later in the 2019-20 season. They also had these late games during Thanksgiving week. Washington also had four games that started at 9 p.m. or later 19 games into the 2018-19 season but the Nationals weren’t in the World Series and their late games didn’t happen during Thanksgiving.
- Justin Kutcher and Drew Gooden replacing Steve Buckhantz and Kara Lawson — If there’s one common denominator that changed between last season and this season, it’s the television crew. Fan favorite Steve Buckhantz was replaced by Kutcher this past offseason while Gooden assumed the primary color analyst role when Lawson took an assistant coach position with the Boston Celtics. Watching Wizards games this season with a completely new crew feels very different and many fans wished that Buckhantz stayed. This certainly played a part into the decline, but I don’t know how much because of the Nationals.
I know many Wizards fans don’t like Kutcher because he’s the guy who replaced Buckhantz. But again, we’re just 19 games into the 2019-20 season. Also, the Wizards faced a situation where their ratings were more likely to be lower than last year due to scheduling and the Nationals’ championship run.
I’m sure we’ll see more ratings comparisons by the All-Star Break. And by that time, I think we’ll be in a better position to say how much of a part the new broadcast crew has to do with the decline as the schedule starts to even out.