Why The NBA’s Middle America Problem Is A Myth

LeBron James during Game 7 of the NBA Finals (Credit: AP)

A LeBron James jumpshot sealed his second NBA championship and the Miami Heat’s third since 2006 in Game 7 of the NBA Finals Thursday night. And if ratings from earlier in the series were any indication, there were more Americans watching than have tuned in to an NBA final in a long time. Tuesday’s Game 6 drew a 14.7 overnight rating, good enough to make it the fourth-highest rated Finals game since ABC took over the broadcast rights in 2003, and it marked the 36th consecutive time the Finals won the night on television, according to ESPN. Game 7, the third winner-take-all Finals game since 2005, did even better, posting a 17.7 overnight ratings number, ABC’s second-highest ever.

The NBA got what it wanted in this series: plenty of superstars, two high-profile teams, and great basketball, even if it had to wait until the final two games for all of those elements to come together. And that’s obviously good news for a league that has struggled to shed the perception that it has become a niche sport compared to its major competitors, popular in its own markets but less so in large swaths of the country. None of those regions is larger than Middle America, occupied primarily by the middle-class white viewers that we’ve been told representsthe NBA’s biggest problem. The idea that the NBA has lost that demographic is taken as a given, even if the reasons cited for that supposed decline in support– the absence of a white superstar, the fashions favored by black players, or just the general fact that the league is mostly black–ought to be subject to more speculation.

But is it true? Has the NBA, relative to competitors like Major League Baseball and the National Football League, lost Middle America, and by implication, white fans?

The NBA is the least popular of those three sports: 35 percent of Americans consider themselves fans, compared to 62 percent for the NFL and 49 percent for MLB, according to Scarborough Sports Marketing. And it is indeed the blackest league in sports, both on the court and off. More than three quarters of its players are black and 82 percent are people of color, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, compared to 38.2 percent in baseball and 67 percent in football. More than 30 percent of its fans are either black or Latino (16.4 percent black; 13.9 percent Latino), according to Scarborough, compared to just more than 20 percent for both the NFL (11.7 black, 10.9 Latino) and MLB (10.2, 11.5). NBA fans are more likely to be black and less likely to be white than the general population. That’s also true, though, for the NFL.

Minority fans, however, seem to be watching the NBA along with white fans, not as a replacement for them. NBA fans are indeed less likely to be white than the general population, but whites still make up between 77.6 and 78.4 percent of NBA fans, according to Scarborough’s most recent research. That’s lower than the proportion in the NFL, where whites make up 83 percent of fans, and in MLB, where whites are between 83 and 85 percent of the fan base. But the disparity hardly seems large enough to show that the NBA has a problem reaching white fans more generally.

The NBA is similar to baseball and football in other measures too. The income breakdowns of its fans are virtually identical, even at the top of the ladder, where fans of all three are more likely to make more than $150,000 than the general population. The NBA is more popular than both among households that make between $25,000 and $40,000 a year; it’s roughly equal to both leagues among fans who make between $40,000 and $50,000 a year and among those who make between $50,000 and $75,000.

It’s become a popular narrative that the NBA is still struggling to reconnect with a white fan base it lost years ago. The NBA is certainly less popular than the two sports with which is competes directly, but the data suggest that blaming its popularity gap on a failure to connect with white viewers seems overly simplistic. At best, that belief diagnoses a problem that doesn’t necessarily exist to the extent observers often suggest. At worst, the proliferation of that belief could lead the NBA to turn away from outreach to communities that has made its fan base more diverse in many positive ways.