Our story last week about NBA attendance and gate receipts suffering generated quite a bit of community discussion, much of it erroneously concluding that the NBA's waning popularity was to blame for all the empty seats and dwindling revenues. That's either faulty community analysis or good old-fashioned NBA hating. Either way, it's wrong.
An argument can be made that the NBA has never been more popular in relation to the other major sports. Two years ago, when the Celtics played the Lakers, the NBA Finals beat the World Series in the TV ratings for the first time since 1988, according to the popular blog Sports Media Watch. With the Yankees in the Series this year and a less attractive L.A.-Orlando matchup, the Finals fell back in place behind baseball. But not in the 18-34 demographic, in which the Finals beat the World Series 5.7 to 5.4 in ratings.
|The Lakers-Celtics NBA Finals in 2008 had higher TV ratings than the World Series. (Getty Images)|
The strength in the NBA's young-audience numbers guarantees future growth -- as long as the product continues its current ascent in terms of quality of play and abundance of watchable stars. Twenty- and 30-something sports fans who consume their sports online have found a willing partner in the NBA, which has become the standard bearer for streaming live games. Not only does the NBA have more Twitter followers than any other sport (1.7 million and counting), it is the most-followed brand on Twitter, recently surpassing Whole Foods, according to TrackingTwitter.com.
Think about that: The sport that some people can't stop bashing is the most-followed brand on the fastest-growing online tool that perhaps has ever existed.
The only downside: Despite blackout restrictions for the NBA League Pass Broadband feature, which allows subscribers to watch live games anywhere on their computers, it's worth wondering whether the growth in online consumption of the NBA product is beginning to nibble away at the margins of ticket sales. If so, there's no turning back now. Buying an overpriced ticket is now only one of several ways the NBA's fans can get their fix. The league is being viewed by more eyeballs than ever before, and the NBA knows more about those customers than the people who used to simply plunk down cash at the box office every night. When you know your customer, you can sell them a lot more stuff besides tickets to games.
Obviously, the trend of empty seats also is being driven by recessionary pressures, which are beginning to ease. As with any other business, some of those customers will come back when the economy recovers, and some of them won't. If enough don't, it's worth wondering what happens in the next wave of NBA arena construction. As in baseball, will NBA teams find that venues with lower seating capacities are more realistic?
It's easy to forget that the NBA, founded in 1946, is on a different historical timetable than, say, baseball, which has been around since the National League was founded in 1876. The era of 70,000-seat baseball stadiums that sprung up in the 1970s is long gone, making me wonder if the era of 20,000-seat NBA arenas also will come to an end in the next 10-15 years -- or sooner.
What does it all mean? For one, you can no longer judge the health of a sport simply by counting people in the stands. And it also means this: If I were an NBA owner negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, I'd want a bigger share of the league's online and mobile revenue to reflect a modern business model that's less reliant on the in-person connection with fans.
If I owned a team in Memphis, Minneapolis, or Milwaukee, I'd want more access to alternative revenue streams that would level the playing field with, say, the Lakers, who rake in a league-high $1.9 million per game in ticket revenues, according to the NBA data published last week by CBSSports.com. If you're the Grizzlies, how are you supposed to compete when your measly per-game take is about one-eighth that amount ($259,106)? Or if you literally give away more than 5,600 tickets for free each game -- as the Atlanta Hawks did last season, according to NBA documents?
TV viewership and attendance have been under pressure for all major sports during the past decade or so, due in large part to the explosion of alternative means of entertainment. You no longer have to be there in order to "be there." Success in the era of sports we are just now beginning to navigate will be defined by how available, interactive, and compelling your game is online. And as many of you just proved by reading this article -- and the dozens of other NBA-related content vehicles available at the click of a mouse pad -- the NBA is positioned for this transition much better than the turnstiles would indicate.
Judging from all the comments last week, even the haters are paying attention.