The NBA's television ratings are down somewhere between 15% and 20%. There are multiple theories including the notion that it's a hangover from the league's pre-season problems in China. I also think that it may be a simple issue of the league having a moment where some of its most iconic brands (Knicks, Bulls, Warriors) are struggling. This article in Variety suggests that it is all about injuries.
It has to be said that the list of big-name stars sat in civilian clothing instead of in uniform has been freakishly long. The most controversial absence has been that of Kawhi Leonard, the freshly-minted Los Angeles Clipper who almost singlehandedly led the Toronto Raptors to an unlikely championship victory last year. Leonard’s absence has drawn headlines because many attribute some of the games he has missed to “load management,” or rest. However, one source pointed out that the only national TV games he has missed so far have been due to “injury management” as opposed to scheduled rest.
Also on the list of absentees are Golden State Warriors stars Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, recent Brooklyn Nets acquisitions Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and Leonard’s fellow Clippers star Paul George.
Add to that the fact that number one overall draft pick Zion Williamson hasn’t played a single minute of NBA basketball yet. Excitement around the New Orleans Pelicans rookie entering the league was at fever pitch before the season, and the NBA was clearly hoping that his presence would provide a boost in ratings.
The absence of stars and the struggles of the Warriors are probably part of the story. I think that another issue is off-season star movement. Fans root for Player-Team combinations. Larry Bird is a Celtic. Magic Johnson is a Laker. Michael Jordan is a Bull. What is Kawhi Leonard? How about Kevin Durant or Paul George or Kyrie Irving?
A consequence of the move towards players coordinating to form "Super Teams" is that player brand's become muddled. The (marketing) theory that drives the super team trend is that joining forces with other stars allows the player to win "brand building" championships.
However, an under appreciated negative consequence is that moving between cities makes players less interesting, less defined brands. I think that fans want to root for "committed" winners. If the league is viewed as a collection of mercenaries then it becomes less likely that fans will be committed.