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The Impact of Covid-19 on NBA and MLB Viewership

By Isa Khalid

New York City, New York

MLB viewing was down by 11% while the NBA lost about half of its viewers (Photo Credit: LA Times)

In a most unusual and unprecedented year, the viewership of sports has drastically decreased. America’s second and third most popular sports, baseball and basketball, were particularly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the past four years, the National Basketball Association (NBA) has outperformed the Major League Baseball (MLB) in its ratings for its championship series. This is most likely due to the increase in popularity of basketball, coupled with the decrease in popularity of baseball. This season, the MLB World Series averaged about 9.72 million viewers per game, 11% less than its audience from last year's World Series, while the NBA Finals averaged only 7.4 million viewers per game, losing about half of its audience from last year. This data raises questions as to why these two leagues had such a large drop in viewership.

Just four years ago, the NBA Finals averaged about 21 million viewers per game while the World Series averaged around 22 million viewers per game. What could be attributed to this large loss of viewership? Is it the lack of fans, or is it simply that the storylines for the World Series and NBA Finals weren’t as interesting? Is the reason for the drop in viewership in the World Series the same reason for the drop of viewership in the NBA Finals? There are no definitive answers to these questions, but there are several pieces of evidence that can offer some hints. The circumstances for both series were mostly very different. The MLB didn’t necessarily have the “star-power” that the NBA had, but it was able to host fans to about 50% capacity. The NBA Finals displayed arguably the biggest star in American sports, LeBron James, but it had no fans in attendance.

These different circumstances make it more difficult to identify one specific factor that led to this decrease in viewership. The lack of starpower in the World Series seems to be the largest reason for the drop in viewership. There was no unique storyline that separated this World Series from ones in the past.

For the NBA Finals, the lack of starpower could not have been the problem, as star-power was very prevalent during the Finals. However, another factor, unique to the NBA in 2020 could potentially be a reason for their drop in viewership. President Donald Trump attributed this ratings collapse in part to the kneeling of NBA players protesting the National Anthem. There is a real possibility that the growing politicalization of the NBA upset fans across the country, partially resulting in this ratings drop.

The only common denominator between the World Series and the Finals was that they both had one location for all of their finals contests. This could have negatively impacted viewership because of the unusual location of each respective finals series. Now, seeing that the NBA’s ratings suffered more than the MLB’s, it seems to be most likely that the combination of no fans and the political climate of the NBA were the biggest two factors in its drop in viewership.


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