The National Basketball Association challenged the National Football League last season in an unprecedented way. While professional football has dominated ratings in the United States since the 1970s (and still does), it experienced a 10 percent fall in regular season viewership last season and a seven percent dip for its Super Bowl. Meanwhile, the NBA regular season TV ratings climbed eight percent.
Yes, the NFL is still king. Over its three-day draft in April, the league averaged 5.5 million viewers per night. The NBA attracted 3.4 million in its single night draft. But last year’s noticeable shift in regular season ratings need to be acknowledged. How has the NBA gain ground so quickly?
Look no further than 14-time All Star LeBron James.
His career is like a dramatic novel. It’s sewn with betrayal and redemption and it’s hard to put down.
When James was just a teenager, he was already the heart and soul of Cleveland, a hometown hero with the potential to be the greatest ever. They called him the “Chosen One.”
But then he left Ohio in the worst of ways. He hosted an ESPN special to announce his departure. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert called it a “cowardly betrayal” and that James was sending the “exact opposite lesson of what we would our children to learn.” LeBron’s jerseys were burned in the streets.
When LeBron linked up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, he became the bad guy of the NBA and also its lightning rod. James promised championships in a flashy ceremony at American Airlines Arena, and “not one, not two, not three, not four...”
Then the Dallas Mavericks beat his Heat in the 2011 Finals in a humiliating upset. LeBron was not broken though, and instead he came back stronger in the 2012 Finals when Miami made easy work of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who had three future Most Valuable Players on their roster. LeBron added another ring with a win over the San Antonio Spurs the next year.
LeBron stunned the basketball world again when he elected to return to Cleveland in 2014. The city raised his iconic banner again. LeBron went on to win the Cavaliers their first NBA title in the 2016 Finals, rallying them back from a 3-1 deficit.
James announced his second departure from Cleveland last week in favor of the Los Angeles Lakers, but this time, Gilbert waxed nostalgic about the Akron native in his second farewell letter.
“We will always remember the evening of June 19, 2016 as the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by LeBron James, ended the 52-year drought delivering the long elusive championship so many thought they would never see,” Gilbert wrote in a public statement.
It’s rare that someone transitions from prodigy to villain to hero in the public eye. It’s fitting that James is heading to Los Angeles. His life is like a movie.
James’s magnetism reflects in the ratings. He turned the Cleveland Cavaliers, a bottom-dwelling Eastern Conference team before his arrival, into the second-most watched team by 2017. If he could do that in Cleveland, imagine how he will drive ratings while playing for the Lakers.
On the other hand, professional football has multiple root causes for its decline in ratings, ranging from national anthem protests to cord cutting to concerns over chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
But like LeBron did for the Cavaliers, a superstar may be able to lift its ratings. Can the NFL produce one?
The NFL is loaded with players of unbelievable talent and charisma, but a variety of attributes about the game itself keep them from becoming superstars. The foremost reason is injuries. In 2017, the Green Bay Packers star quarterback Aaron Rodgers missed nine games with a broken collarbone. The Houston Texans luminary J.J. Watt missed 11 games with a fractured tibial plateau. The New York Giants electrifying receiver Odell Beckham Jr. missed 11 games with a broken ankle.
LeBron James has never missed a playoff game in his career.
Football players are also simply less visible than NBA players. Rarely does a fan see more than the eyes of a player through the visor of his helmet. With their faces hidden, they become less recognizable and therefore less popular.
Analytics support this. In ESPN’s “World Fame 100” ranking, which uses analytics to combine endorsements with social media following and internet search popularity to determine international popularity, nine players from the NBA made the top 50. Only two NFL players ranked that high.
More importantly though, injuries and the teams’ large 53-man rosters dilute the amount of attention that can be given to a single player. If a top player gets hurt, there’s a chance that his backup will do more than just fill in. He’ll take his job, and the former starter will either find another team, the bench or leave the league.
In this way, success in the NFL is about prepared replacement. Only Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and a handful of other quarterbacks are above this rule. All players are susceptible to random injuries and therefore will be replaced, which damages the ability of viewers to build loyalty to a star.
After all, as the NFL Players Association reports, the average length of a career in the NFL is barely three years. The average NBA career is almost five years.
The long term health concerns of CTE are also shrinking the NFL talent pool. A research study shows that the number of high school football players have declined five percent since 2008. This corresponds with the timing of when the first studies about correlation between CTE and professional football came out.
LeBron will lead thousands of fans to Los Angeles as he puts on the purple-and-gold. He will likely further raise NBA ratings as the world watches him clash with the juggernauts of the Western Conference.
The NFL, on the other hand, will never be able to produce a star of James’ seismic power as it is today. Its players simply don’t have the exposure, or enough time.