- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2020

The 2020 NBA Finals, with a potential series-deciding and season-ending Game 5 looming Friday night, are poised to become the league’s least-watched championship round on record — and Sen. Ted Cruz says he knows why.

The Texas Republican, tweeting under the hashtag “GetWokeGoBroke” this week, said fans don’t want a “left-wing lecture” from a league that was embracing social activism long before the death in May of George Floyd, a Black man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police.

“Not surprising. Personally speaking, this is the first time in years that I haven’t watched a single game in the NBA Finals,” Mr. Cruz said Tuesday.

The conservative senator’s criticism has been echoed by others, including Clay Travis, who runs Outkick.com, a right-leaning sports site.

“If I am in an NBA ownership group, or I’m an NBA executive, or I am a television executive, I am getting heartburn every time the NBA ratings come back,” Mr. Travis said. He said the league has only itself to blame: “The NBA has gotten too woke.”



After ratings for Tuesday’s Los Angeles Lakers’ win recovered some lost ground — Game 1 pulled in 7.41 million viewers, Game 2 garnered 6.61 million, Game 3 slipped to 5.94 million and Game 4 rebounded to 7.54 million — the Lakers-Heat series, barring a huge uptick in viewership Friday, is still set to become the lowest-rated finals ever.

The NFL is holding steady, and Major League Baseball may have even picked up viewers. But basketball is one of several sports that have shown sharp declines, according to Sports Media Watch.

The Stanley Cup Final was down 61%. The Kentucky Derby fell 43%. The U.S. Open for tennis and golf each fell at least 40%. Even the mighty NFL, which still dominates the television landscape, has experienced a small drop after back-to-back years of growth.

Each of those sports had its marquee event later than originally scheduled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The NBA Finals, set to take place in June, instead are finishing in October. The NHL season wrapped up in September, three months later than planned. The Derby was pushed back from May to September.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver indicated before the start of the finals that the league’s viewership was affected by the change.

“We’re learning a little bit more about our television audience as we are experimenting [with the schedule], and part of it is fewer people are watching television in the summer, different competition,” Mr. Silver told reporters, “especially when you get into the fall with the NFL, college football and all that.”

Of course, the NBA’s ratings were falling even before the pandemic hit — something critics like President Trump and Mr. Cruz were quick to blame on the NBA’s increasing willingness to get involved in politics and social activism. The league faced heavy backlash in 2019 for its crackdown on officials and players criticizing the communist government in China, which the league sees as a huge part of its future growth.

But the league has encouraged protests aimed at injustice in the U.S.

Before the George Floyd protests, stars including LeBron James and Derrick Rose wore “I can’t breathe” shirts in support of Eric Garner, a Black man who died after a confrontation with a White police officer in New York.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban pushed back hard this week on Mr. Cruz’s comments. “Since when is a desire to end racism an insult to anyone or political?” the billionaire tweeted, telling the senator from Texas that he was “full of [expletive].”

In late August, the NBA stopped play for a few days in the middle of the postseason after the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The work stoppage was viewed as a dramatic step even for a league that had willingly embraced social justice messages on the backs of jerseys and had the Black Lives Matter logo painted at center court.

The players have been steadfast in their protesting of racial injustice. Even before the stoppage, James dismissed criticism from Mr. Trump. He told reporters that the basketball community “wasn’t sad” to lose the president as a viewer.

“The game will go on without his eyes on it,” James said. “I can sit here and speak for all of us that love the game of basketball: We could [not] care less.”

Television experts are skeptical that the decline in viewership can be tied directly to political activism. “I don’t think people need a political motive to not tune into a Magic-Sixers game on a Friday at 3 p.m.,” Sports Media Watch founder Jon Lewis told The Washington Times in August. Mr. Lewis and others have argued that factors such as increased competition can lower ratings.

That appears to be true. Game 3, for instance, was the NBA’s lowest-rated game of the series with only 5.94 million viewers, but it was also going up against “Sunday Night Football” in which the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers averaged 15 million viewers.

Michael Mulvihill, Fox Sports executive vice president and head of strategy, tweeted that from the day MLB returned (July 23) through the end of Week 4 of the NFL season, total viewership of live sports is up 7% nationally. But while more people may be watching more sports than before, “nearly every major nationally televised property is down,” he wrote.

“The last ten weeks of sports have played almost like a thought experiment: if every sport was on at the same time, what would hold up best?” Mr. Mulvihill wrote. “The answer, maybe unsurprisingly, has been baseball locally and the NFL nationally.”

Interestingly enough, Mr. Silver disclosed in a recent interview that the NBA’s social justice messaging won’t necessarily be as prevalent in games next season. He told ESPN that the messages on the court and jerseys were the result of an “extraordinary moment” and said the league would discuss its social justice plan with players for next season.

“My sense is there wil be somewhat a return to normalcy, that those messages will largely be left to be delivered off the floor,” Mr. Silver said. “And I understand those people who are saying, ‘I’m on your side, but I want to watch a basketball game.’”

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