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Should The NBA Be Worried About TV Ratings? Reddit Activity Says So.

Heading into the 2019-20 NBA season, there were compelling storylines everywhere. The race for the championship was as wide open as ever. Zion Williamson, maybe the most hyped rookie since LeBron James, was set to make his debut for the New Orleans Pelicans. Superstars like Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook were ready to play for new teams.

And yet, early in the season, fewer people seem to be watching. Across national and regional broadcasts, television ratings are down. Some have blamed the homogeneity in play-style across the league, the length of the regular season, the abundance of 3-pointers, load management, injuries and a lack of superstars in the Eastern time zone.

We’ve long used TV ratings as a barometer of how interested fans are in the NBA. But is that still an accurate gauge of audience interest? These days, TV ratings aren’t necessarily a good proxy for how interested people actually are in the NBA. Ratings do not account for cord-cutters who watch games via livestreams or fans who follow the NBA more casually through YouTube highlights and social media. In other words, interest in the NBA may be high even with a decline in TV ratings if engagement with these other forms of content makes up for the decline in traditional viewership.

To find out how interested fans still are in the NBA, we need more modern measures that account for the different ways people consume basketball in 2020. And so we turn to Reddit.

The NBA subreddit is the among the most active basketball message boards on the internet. It has just under 3 million members, and it was Reddit’s No. 1 overall sports community by total activity in 2019. Whether it’s highlights, news or analysis of James Harden’s performance in cities with highly rated nightclubs, r/nba is the go-to place for all things NBA on the Internet. If interest in the NBA is down relative to previous years, then it stands to reason that activity — specifically comment activity — on r/nba would also be down.

With data from pushshift.io, we can track how many comments are made each day on r/nba. Below is a chart of the 15-day rolling average of the number of comments made on the NBA subreddit between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31 over the past three years. In the last three months of 2019, the typical rolling average of daily comments was consistently lower than that of the same time period in the two previous years.

To be more precise, the total number of comments made in October, November and December 2019 was 6 percent less than in 2018. Six percent might not seem like a big difference, but it is surprising considering that r/nba added more than a million new subscribers between the end of 2018 and the end of 2019.

Comment activity on r/nba may have declined for many of the same reasons that were used to explain the decline in TV ratings (i.e., too many threes, load management, injuries). Or, maybe it’s because there’s been less drama this season, other than the high-profile injuries. Aside from a trade involving role players Jordan Clarkson and Dante Exum and the scuffle between Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns, there hasn’t been much to squawk about. Compare that to last season, where, within the first month, there was a trade involving Jimmy Butler and an on-court fight between players on the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers. In fact, much of the recent NBA drama seems to have landed during the stormy 2019 offseason.

While interest in the league at large may be down, that may not be true for each team and fan base. After all, Lakers fans seem to be as chatty as ever. We can look at the comment activity on r/nba for each individual fan base to see if the decline is coming from a specific subset of fans.

On r/nba, users have the option to publicly display their allegiance to their favorite team through “flairs,” which appear as icons next to usernames in posts and comments.1 While displaying a flair is not required to participate in discussions, roughly 80 percent of the comments from 2011 to 2018 were made by users with flair.

In the table below, comment activity from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31 of 2018 and 2019 is broken out by user flair. Here we can see which fan bases have been more or less active this season.

The Clippers are up, the Kings are down

Percent change from 2018 to 2019 in comments on r/nba between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31 of each year, by team flair of commenter

Total Comments
Team 2018 2019 percent change
Los Angeles Clippers 21.5K 47.1K +119.3%
Miami Heat 28.0 50.3 +79.5
Brooklyn Nets 23.3 35.8 +54.0
Dallas Mavericks 46.2 61.7 +33.6
Houston Rockets 55.9 70.7 +26.4
Milwaukee Bucks 41.1 45.6 +11.2
New Orleans Pelicans 19.3 21.1 +9.3
Philadelphia 76ers 83.0 89.4 +7.6
Los Angeles Lakers 184.8 193.2 +4.5
Toronto Raptors 153.4 159.2 +3.8
Orlando Magic 15.1 14.9 -1.4
New York Knicks 58.1 57.2 -1.5
Atlanta Hawks 18.9 18.5 -1.7
Portland Trail Blazers 39.1 37.4 -4.2
Indiana Pacers 17.6 16.7 -5.1
Detroit Pistons 22.3 21.2 -5.2
Boston Celtics 102.3 96.7 -5.5
Memphis Grizzlies 16.1 14.6 -9.0
Phoenix Suns 40.8 36.9 -9.4
Utah Jazz 29.1 25.4 -12.5
Charlotte Hornets 19.2 16.8 -12.6
San Antonio Spurs 49.3 42.7 -13.4
Chicago Bulls 49.5 41.2 -16.8
Golden State Warriors 96.2 76.5 -20.5
Denver Nuggets 31.1 23.0 -26.1
Washington Wizards 30.9 21.8 -29.4
Minnesota Timberwolves 42.8 28.7 -33.0
Cleveland Cavaliers 46.6 28.4 -39.1
Oklahoma City Thunder 59.9 33.1 -44.7
Sacramento Kings 35.3 18.9 -46.4

Source: Pushshift.io

We can use the rolling averages again to show the highs and lows of all 30 fan bases on Reddit year to year. Note that the size of fan bases varies dramatically on r/nba, so cross-team comparisons shouldn’t be made when looking at the chart below. Instead, this chart is meant to provide intra-team comparisons.

Fans of the Los Angeles Clippers, the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat have been noticeably more active than they were last season. And that makes sense: All three teams added All-Star-level players to their rosters, and each team is currently among the best in their respective conferences record-wise.

Meanwhile, fan bases for the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Golden State Warriors have been noticeably less active. One of those teams traded its two best players (Russell Westbrook and Paul George), while the other suffered long-term injuries to two of its stars (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson) and lost another (Kevin Durant) to free agency.

In general, fans of teams that have gotten off to better (or worse) than expected starts are more (or less) active compared to the previous season. And then there’s the New York Knicks. Despite a poor start to the season that led to the team firing head coach David Fizdale, Knicks fans are still among the most stable on Reddit. Take that for data.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Although team flairs are most common, there are also player, country, conference, and league-specific flairs as well.

Owen Phillips is a data analyst and writer living in Brooklyn. His work can be found on NPR, The Outline and The Awl.

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