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The NBA and WNBA’s television ratings dropped this summer but had different outcomes for the Finals

The NBA and WNBA enjoyed successful periods in their Florida bubbles. While both leagues suffered season declines in TV viewership most of the season, the NBA Finals suffered a 49 percent drop year over year while the WNBA had a 15 percent increase.

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics
Though the NBA’s season restart and playoffs were a success, it was also a ratings bust. The WNBA had an overall decline, but the Finals had its highest ratings ever.
Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Earlier this week, Sports Media Watch released a report that the 2020 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat had a 49 percent drop in television viewership compared to last year’s Finals between the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors across all American national networks (ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, NBATV).

As for the NBA Playoffs (which I assume includes the restart which were effectively playoff games anyway), ratings were down 37 percent. The Washington Wizards were part of the season restart.

The WNBA also had its 2020 season during the NBA’s season restart and playoffs. The regular season’s television ratings dropped by 16 percent. However, the 2020 WNBA Finals between the Seattle Storm and Las Vegas Aces had 15 percent more viewers than the 2019 Finals between the Washington Mystics and Connecticut Sun. That clashes with WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert saying that ratings were up 68 percent, but again, this year’s Finals had higher ratings than last year.

So why was NBA basketball an apparent ratings bust? Here are some possible explanations.

  • A high proportion of watchers are casual watchers for any game. This summer, there were multiple season restarts which competed for viewers’ attention. Ratings were down for most sports, including tennis, MLB and the NHL.
  • Fewer people are watching television than before. These numbers don’t include those watching on ESPN Plus which would have streamed NBA Finals games, for example.
  • Many games were held on weekdays during the early afternoon in the East Coast. More people are working from home, but that doesn’t mean that they are able to flip on a game.
  • The NBA Finals was down in particular because it was competing against the NFL regular season and MLB playoffs for attention, something the league has never done before. The NBA was also competing against the WNBA for that matter.

And why did the WNBA not suffer as big of a ratings drop? And why the did the Finals get more viewers than last year’s championship when the Mystics won it all? Here are some possible explanations.

  • A higher proportion of viewers are hardcore fans. Since there aren’t as many casual fans of the WNBA, there was less room for ratings to jump or drop as wildly.
  • The WNBA continued playing its season during the summer when it normally held games. The modest ratings drop is a sign of encouragement if anything, considering that the NBA, NHL, and MLB were restarting their seasons or beginning their seasons late, all at around the same time.
  • And for the Finals, this year’s teams were both star-laden featuring the 2020 WNBA MVP’s (A’ja Wilson’s) team against the 2018 MVP’s (Breanna Stewart). Both teams have multiple big names beyond the MVPs. Also, the Storm won the championship in 2018 and three league championships heading into this season. Last year’s Finals teams featured two teams that had no previous championships, and the Sun didn’t have a “face of the league” player — which fueled their “disrespeCT” hashtag.
  • And perhaps, the WNBA is just getting more popular. There is a smaller denominator of fans than the NBA of course, but all leagues have to start from somewhere.

Do you think these rating declines will influence the NBA to keep their season from repeating a summer playoff period like in 2020? Do you expect WNBA ratings to stay steady or go up in 2021? How high do you think the Wizards’ and Mystics’ ratings will fare longer term? Let us know in the comments below.