Fact Check: Did NBA Finals Ratings Crash Nearly 70 Percent, as Donald Trump Claims?

President Donald Trump took aim at the NBA again on Monday night, poking fun at the plummeting ratings for the NBA Finals and suggesting Americans had "zero interest" in watching basketball.

The president's remarks came less than a week after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) suggested the NBA only had itself to blame for the low TV ratings that blighted the NBA Finals, claiming the league "has decided to insult half of its fans" with its social justice stance. Over the last few months, the NBA has been at the forefront of campaigns to end racial discrimination and police brutality, after protests exploded across the U.S. in the wake of George Floyd's death and the shooting of Jacob Blake.

The NBA threw its support behind the Black Lives Matter movement—although NBA commissioner Adam Silver has repeatedly made clear the league supported the movement's broader values, rather than the organization directly—displaying the BLM logo on the courts in Orlando, Florida, where the season resumed following a four-month lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Additionally, the league allowed players to wear social justice message on the back of their jerseys during the game and allowed them to kneel during the national anthem.

The Claim:

On Monday night, Trump tweeted a Breitbart News article that reported the viewership numbers for Game 6 of the NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat plunged almost 70 percent compared to Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals, when the Toronto Raptors ended the Golden State Warriors dynasty. The article added a "random" Sunday Night Football game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Minnesota Vikings drew in almost twice as many viewers than Game 6 of the Finals.

"Maybe they were watching in China, but I doubt it," the president quipped.

"Zero interest!"

Trump's decision to namecheck China was far from casual, as on Friday the country's state broadcaster, CCTV, resumed broadcasting NBA games after a 12-month blackout due to a diplomatic incident sparked by pro-Hong Kong protesters comments made by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in October last year.

Viewership for NBA Finals Finale Crash Nearly 70%, Beaten by Random Sunday Night Football Game https://t.co/RaDVRSE4ww via @BreitbartNews Maybe they were watching in China, but I doubt it. Zero interest!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 12, 2020

The Facts:

According to data from Nielsen Media Research, 5.6 million viewers—the figure is preliminary and will be confirmed later this week—tuned into Game 6 of the Finals to watch the Lakers clinch a record-equaling 17th NBA title, compared with 18.34 million viewers in Game 6 of the 2019 Finals between the Raptors and the Warriors.

The 2019 NBA Finals averaged 15.1 million viewers and a 8.76 rating, while Game 6 on Sunday delivered a 2.1 rating in the 18-49 demographic and preliminary figures indicate the audience over the six games of the Finals made this the lowest-rated NBA Finals series on record.

To put the figure into context, The Last Dance, ESPN's 10-part documentary chronicling Michael Jordan's final season with the Chicago Bulls, averaged 5.6 million viewers when it aired between April and May this year. Sunday Night Football, which aired on NBC during Game 6, drew in an audience of just over 12 million.

Rating: True

The hard numbers from Nielsen make for irrefutable evidence. Game 6 of the NBA Finals attracted almost 13 million fewer viewers than Game 6 in 2019, continuing a trend established early in the series when, according to official figures, the metered-markets average through the first three games of the NBA Finals fell from 12.6 last year to 10.1 this year.

However, the figures come with the major caveat of the unusual nature of the sporting calendar due to the reshuffling forced by the coronavirus lockdown.

The four-month hiatus forced the NBA to schedule its Finals in October, meaning the series clashed against the MLB playoffs, the NFL (Game 3 marked the first time an NBA Finals game came up against Sunday Night Football) college football and the NHL playoffs—which were also postponed as hockey, like basketball, negotiated a four-month lockdown.

Aside from Game 3, all the other five games in the NBA Finals have partially overlapped with the MLB postseason—at times with more than one matchup—and a similar situation unfolded during the Conference Finals, when all but one of the 11 combined games clashed with the MLB regular season.

Four out of 11 Conference Finals games overlapped primetime NFL games—two Thursday Night Football and two Sunday Night Football—and with the Stanley Cup Finals, while two games competed with college football on ABC.

Additionally, the NBA isn't alone in suffering from the fragmentation of viewership due to the unusual circumstances of having multiple major sports in-season simultaneously. After the regular season resumed in the bubble in Orlando in late July, NBA seeding games broadcast on ESPN drew an average audience of 1.2 million viewers, compared with an average of 749,000 viewers for MLB regular season games broadcast on the same network.

NBA playoff games broadcast across ESPN and TNT drew an average audience of 2.1 million viewers, compared with an average of 651,000 viewers for NHL playoff games on NBC.

Viewership for the MLB Division Series is down 40 percent year-on-year, while Stanley Cup suffered a 61 percent drop in audience compared to 12 months ago and even the NFL has experienced a 13 percent dip through the first five weeks of the regular season.

Los Angeles Lakers, NBA Finals
The Los Angeles Lakers pose for a team photo with the trophy after winning the NBA Championship over the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the 2020 NBA Finals at AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on October 11 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty