JOHANNESBURG – How has the NBA been able to buck a worrying trend for big sports, not just in the US, but worldwide, which has seen viewership numbers drop in recent years?
The NFL, which is still the wealthiest sports league in the world, saw a 10 percent drop in TV viewership over the course of its last season. The English Premiership - in England at least - has also experienced a drop off in viewership on TV of between four and five percent, which is causing concern for rights holders, like SkySports.
Among the reasons being offered for the EPL’s viewership decline is the lack of decent competition - that the league was dominated by one club this season - while the NFL’s decline has been put down to the political atmosphere in the US.
Apparently, Colin Kaepernick kneeling while the national anthem of the US was being sung before games, turned many people off.
Both of those reasons don’t hold true, however, when one considers the NBA.
The last three NBA finals have been played between the same two teams - the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers - and in the case of Lebron James, he has so dominated the league that he has featured in the last seven Finals series. That kind of one-sidedness has not negatively impacted on viewership.
Nor has standing up and expressing opinions about social ills or criticising the current occupant of the White House.
NBA players are arguably the most socially aware and most outspoken professional sportsmen in the world. James has previously called the current US president “a bum” and just this year said about him that “he really don’t give a f*** about the people.”
Those are obviously very strong views from one of the most high profile athletes in the world, but whereas as other leagues and sports federations might discourage their athletes from being so forthright - concerned it might impact on viewership numbers and by extension the ability to attract advertisers - the NBA has shown the opposite is true. TV ratings for the networks that broadcast the NBA in the US are up 13 percent and most importantly there’s a 14 percent increase in viewers aged 18-34.
It is a league that revels in its diversity and encourages its athletes to speak out about what is happening in the world around them.
There is too little of that from sports stars elsewhere, and that is definitely the case here in South Africa. How many professional players have spoken out or criticised the crowd violence, which has become a feature of local football?
Many of the country’s sportsmen and women are involved in noble charitable causes across the country, but how many have the courage to stand up to criticise government for not doing enough in those areas which need their charity?
The likes of James, Dwyane Wade, Steph Curry and Chris Paul have shown that speaking up won’t lead to a decrease in commercial returns.
In fact the NBA as a whole is showing the opposite is true.