Could the NBA Soon Overtake the NFL

as the Most Popular Professional Sports League in America?

By: Schuyler Swanson

The NFL has long been widely considered the most popular professional sports league in the United States since it dethroned America’s first sports love, baseball, back in the mid-1900s. Since that transition in sports, no other professional league has come close to matching the NFL’s popularity. Its dominance in the American sports market can best be compared to McDonald’s dominance in the fast food industry. When people think of American fast food, often times the first thing that comes to their mind is McDonald’s. Similarly with American sports, often times the sport that people will first think of is football. But interestingly enough, much like McDonald’s, a number of trends in recent years seem to show that the NFL is possibly closing in on its peak potential if it hasn’t reached it already, as its performance in a couple of different metrics has begun to decline. Prior to the 2018–2019 season, the NFL’s television ratings were down by an average of 8 percent since the 2016 season. The majority of the NFL’s revenue comes from television advertisement deals, and with the rise of the cord-cutting trend, (in other words getting rid of cable and opting for digital services to watch content instead such as Hulu, Sling TV, etc.), the next decade could be tough on the NFL’s profits unless it adapts and finds new ways to generate revenue. On top of this, the NFL has struggled with numerous other issues the past couple of seasons, including a hotly divided debate surrounding the National Anthem protests, controversy surrounding the number of NFL players involved in domestic violence cases and how the league has responded to them, and concern over the physical danger that the sport poses to players. If that doesn’t already seem like a handful of issues to deal with the NFL has also been highly criticized for its constant rule changes as well as their inconsistent implementation of these rules that have resulted in a number of controversial plays, many of which possibly had major playoff implications. On the flip side, the NBA has been quietly trending in the opposite direction of the NFL. While the NFL television ratings have largely been in decline, the NBA’s have been steadily increasing. Additionally, the NBA has set recent records for fan attendance and has been quick to integrate itself well into online and social media platforms to further connect with fans. The NBA also has a secret weapon that is currently in the early stages of development that could possibly help it push past the NFL in total popularity; international operations. Expanding internationally is something that the NFL has been looking into and experimenting with for a number of years with limited success. The NBA has also been looking into this for quite some time now, but while it appears that the NFL has no major plans to officially branch outside of the U.S., the NBA has more concrete plans that it has begun to put into motion to create a league in Africa, as well as try to set up development leagues and expand play in China.

Now having said all of this, when you compare the numbers side by side the NFL is still years ahead of the NBA in a lot of categories including total revenue, television ratings, the average value of each franchise, etc., so there is no need for league officials to panic quite yet. The downward trends that the NFL is experiencing are still nonetheless concerning, and if the league does not do enough to address these issues, there is a very real chance that the NBA could be in a position to take the spot as America’s favorite sport. As a huge NBA and NFL fan myself, the future outlook for both of these leagues over the next decade greatly interests me. In this paper, I will compare and contrast the main differences in the two leagues and more specifically look into what each league particularly does well and what each league is currently struggling with. I will also discuss the differences in marketing strategies that each league uses, and will then make my case for why I believe the NBA will dethrone the NFL during the next decade.

As I just mentioned, while the NFL has been trending downwards and the NBA has been trending upwards in recent years, when looking solely at the numbers, the NFL is still leaps and bounds ahead of the NBA. Reporter Mike Luckas wrote a very informative article on WSN.com back in August of 2018 that does a good job breaking down a lot of these numbers and explaining what they mean for each league moving forward. A good number to first look at when comparing the overall success and popularity of professional sports leagues is the total revenue generated. In the 2017–2018 season, the NFL made $14 billion in total revenue, over $900 million more than they made the season before and a whopping $6 billion increase from 2010. The NBA made just $7.4 billion during the 2017–2018 season. While the NBA made a little less than half of what the NFL made, what stands out is that $7.4 billion that the NBA generated was up 25% from what they made the season before when they made $5.94 billion. Another statistic that goes to show just how ginormous of an operation the NFL is, is that the Super Bowl alone generates more money than the NBA and MLB playoffs combined. In the 2017–2018 season, the Super Bowl made $500 million, with advertisement spending making up $400 million. The average NBA team is worth $1.65 billion, while the average NFL team is worth $2.5 billion. These numbers are much farther apart then they may first appear. For context, the team worth the least amount of money in the NFL is the Buffalo Bills who are valued at $1.6 billion, which is still nearly the average value of an NBA team. As noted in the article though, NBA teams were worth 22% more in 2018 then they were in 2017. The values of NBA franchises have also tripled over the last five years. This is because they currently have more potential growing their brand and generating revenue internationally, (something I will talk about in more detail later), and have been quietly beginning to take advantage of that. Mike Luckas even noted that the NBA’s international revenue has been growing at a rate, “in the high teens annually.”

Outside of total revenue generated, perhaps the next best statistic that shows just how much more popular the NFL is in the United States compared to the NBA is television viewership. About 103.4 million people worldwide tuned in to watch the Philadelphia Eagle defeat the New England Patriots in the 2017–2018 Super Bowl. The NBA Finals series for that same season only averaged about 20.4 million viewers among five games. This was, however, the most people who had watched the NBA finals in almost two decades. When looking at the difference of views in regular season games, the NFL averages millions of more views then the NBA does. As of the 17–18 season, however, popular NFL game broadcasts Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football, and Thursday Night Football all saw declines in viewership for the second year in a row. The average television viewership for the NBA increased to a four-year high in the same season, and their nationally televised games were up by an average of 8%. These numbers show that the NFL is still without question the most popular sports league in the United States. But it is clear that when compared to the NBA, the two leagues are heading in opposite directions.

The NFL has had numerous public relations problems the past couple of years that are likely at least partially responsible for the NFL’s downward trend. Some of these problems include the controversy surrounding former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality, the public concern over the number of players who suffer concussions in the NFL and the effects it can have on one’s brain and body in life after football, blatantly missed calls that the NFL has had to later admit were wrong, and handing out inconsistent or inadequate punishments to players involved in domestic violence cases. The common theme among these issues is the NFL reacted late to all of them. They don’t have a very good record of proactively changing to keep up with the times as they are generally more set in their ways, only responding to an issue when they begin to feel enough pressure from the public to do so. Jonathan Crowl explains this situation in detail in an article for skyword.com, saying that, “…the NFL’s marketing challenges aren’t tied to one predominant factor. Instead, it’s a combination of many different factors…” If these problems continue to persist, Crowl points out an even larger issue that could eventually emerge.

“A more fundamental challenge, though, is the NFL’s reliance on TV as its main source of revenue, even as advertisers gradually move away from TV and into other mediums.”

Between the cord-cutting movement and the larger variety of ways people are consuming/watching sports, TV advertising revenue is losing steam. Crowl notes that the NFL has begun to respond to this problem by targeting cord-cutters through a new deal that they made with Amazon to live stream a couple of select regular season games that will be available to Amazon customers. The NFL is still going to need to do much more to diversify its revenue sources if it wants to continue to grow its total yearly profit over the next decade.

The NBA does a good job with social media marketing and it once again goes back to the progressive nature of the league. The NBA has embraced social media and has been quick to make updates such as installing Wi-Fi at all of the arenas and partnering with different companies to offer new ways to watch live games from mobile devices. The NBA team franchises social media accounts have also followed what I like to call the Wendy’s script for social media, meaning they are highly responsive and interactive with fans and are able to make jokes and appeal to younger generations without coming off as ‘corny’ or ‘trying too hard.’ The results have been impressive and have paid off greatly for the league. The NBA has also worked hard to expand its brand beyond its male basketball league in an effort to reach more markets and different segments of people. Under the NBA umbrellas is the women’s national basketball league (WNBA), the NBA G-League (a developmental minor league), the NBA 2K League, (an e-sports league based on the NBA 2K video game), and NBA League Pass (a streaming service for NBA games). The NFL has a popular video game and a league pass streaming service as well, but overall does not match the NBA when it comes to the number and diversity of umbrella or associated leagues.

The next area I want to compare and contrast the NBA and NFL on is fan experience. Fans are the driving force of the past, current, and future success for both of these leagues and the levels of satisfaction they experience today will play a critical factor in which direction each league trends in over the next decade. While the numbers show that the NFL has much higher average attendance than the NBA with significantly fewer games played per season, this doesn’t necessarily correlate to higher levels of gameday satisfaction. According to a 2018 article on Front Office Sports, a study from the Temkin Group based on 10,000 U.S. consumers found that the NFL recorded the lowest satisfaction scores for 8 out of 9 categories among all professional sports leagues in the United States despite being the most popular sport to watch on TV. These categories included selecting and purchasing tickets, parking, entering the arena/stadium, finding your seat, using the bathroom, purchasing food, purchasing souvenirs, and leaving the arena/stadium. While the NBA didn’t score amazingly well in the study either, (the MLB, MLS, and WNBA all scored better than both the NBA and NFL), they did still do better than the NFL.

Among the other downward trends that the NFL is experiencing, scoring low in a number of fan experience categories definitely isn’t an encouraging statistic to see. It is important to note that they have the largest stadiums of any other professional sports league in the U.S. and oftentimes the highest attendances, so the data is likely skewed to a certain degree. With that in mind, it makes sense that with smaller stadiums and smaller attendance numbers things such as parking, using the bathroom, and experience watching the game would generally be better in NBA stadiums. Also with the NBA playing more games a season, their ticket prices are going to typically be cheaper as there are more opportunities to see a game live. The key here though is, as I mentioned earlier, how each league responds to this issue. The NFL is generally slow to respond to issues or complaints from fans, while the NBA openly listens to fan complaints/suggestions and has been quick to make changes accordingly. Right now the NFL can afford to take a conservative approach to respond to these type of issues as their product is so widely popular. Over time though, if they continue to trend downwards, they are going to have to start taking more progressive approaches to evolve their operations if they want to remain the top sports league in the country.

The final glaring difference between the NBA and the NFL has to do with their success branching out internationally. While both leagues have maintained similar goals and aspirations of one-day having teams in multiple countries, the NBA seems to have a much more realistic chance of making that happen within the next decade. Right off the bat the NBA already has an advantage over the NFL with the existence of one international team, the Toronto Raptors. What the NBA has learned over the years with Toronto could come in handy when looking to add more international teams in the future. The next most likely international location that could have an NBA team soon might be Mexico City. The league has been playing games in London and Mexico City every season since 2011, and the possibility of adding a team to one or both of those cities has been explored in recent years. Mexico City is relatively close to the U.S. especially when compared to London, and as one of the largest cities in the world, it has a ton of untapped market potential for basketball. According to an article on sportspromedia.com, adding an NBA team in Mexico City might happen sooner than later. In fact, the league expects to officially stamp their presence there by adding a G-League team within the next season or two. The NBA also recently signed an agreement with Televisia, a Mexican mass media company, to air more NBA games on Mexican TV. These two moves are huge and make the idea of having a permanent team in Mexico City much more likely. In addition to Mexico City, the NBA has also become heavily invested in trying to break into the Chinese market. According to a Forbes article written in March of this year, out of China’s 1.4 billion residents, about 640 million of them, (almost twice the population of the entire United States), watched some type of NBA programming during the 2017–2018 season. The article also reports that the NBA estimates it has about 180 million followers on social media in China and the television show NBA primetime has averaged 28 million viewers per episode over the last three years. This market potential is astonishing, especially considering that the NBA is still in the very early stages of establishing a long-term presence in China and has yet to implement their full marketing plan. But China doesn’t just contain lots of potential for future NBA fans and viewership, it also has a lot of potential for producing future NBA players as well. The league has estimated that around 300 million people play basketball in China, and they hope to expand on the development programs similar to the ones they have set up in Australia in hopes of cultivating lots of future NBA talent. If all of this wasn’t promising enough, the NBA also has plans to expand its brand throughout Africa as well. According to a February 2019 article on CNN, the NBA is planning to launch a professional league in Africa that will be made up of 12 teams from a number of countries including, Angola, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia.

A training session takes place at an NBA development camp in China.
A 2017 NBA game in Mexico City tips off between the Brooklyn Nets and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

In my opinion, this move alone would officially assert the NBA’s dominance over the NFL as a global sport and could potentially help its popularity increase back in the U.S. Setting up an entirely separate league that is still a part of the brand is something that the NFL has been itching to implement in Europe for years but has failed to do so. Targeting markets in both Asia and Africa is probably wise for any industry, as both of those continents are presently and will continue to be some of the fastest developing markets in the world over the next several decades.

While the NBA has multiple international expansion plans, the NFL remains mainly focused on just two locations, London and Mexico City. Like the NBA, the NFL has made it a yearly tradition to play a game or two in London each year and is looking to do the same in Mexico City. Outside of that not much else has seemed to develop and the NFL still does not appear to have any future plans to permanently establish their brand in another country, though it is believed they maintain a strong focus on one day possibly expanding to the U.K.

One of the main reasons the NFL has been slow to expand internationally is that because football was invented in the United States and the sport and its many traditions are so ingrained in American culture, it has been rather difficult for it to easily translate over to foreign countries, especially when most of those countries are already dominated by other sports such as soccer, rugby, and increasingly basketball. Rugby, a sport that in many ways is similar to the NFL, presents an interesting situation for the league, as rugby fans could be more easily drawn to the NFL than other international sports fans. The one catch, however, is convincing a group of fans who are used to watching a sport being played with minimal equipment to one that requires a hefty amount of equipment. One of the reasons why basketball, (as well as baseball and soccer), has much more international appeal then football is because the rules are generally simple to understand and one does not need much more than a ball and something to shoot the ball into to play. Another challenge the NFL faces with expanding internationally is that the NFL has a long constantly changing/updating list of rules that can be confusing to other cultures that are not very familiar with the sport. Lastly, football is a very start-stop kind of sport. Most plays last just a handful of seconds and are often followed by a moment of inaction while the teams prepare for the next play. On top of this, there are regular coaches time-outs, injury time-outs, TV timeouts, play review/challenge time-outs, and time off in between each quarter. Yes, the NBA has lots of breaks in play too, but the overall speed and play of the game is much more fluid than football. The way basketball is played, from the simplicity of the rules to the goals of the game, (shoot a ball into a basket), to the fast pace of play, it in a way mirrors soccer to an extent, which might be another reason why people in other countries that are dominated by soccer have been gravitating towards basketball more than football.

The potential of the Chinese and African basketball markets present the NBA with an incredible opportunity to exponentially grow its brand, and could quite possibly be the key factor that can help the league not only dethrone the NFL and become the most popular sport in the United States, but also eventually become the most popular sport in the world. Luckily for the NFL, there is still time for them to catch up to the NBA in the race for global sports dominance and protect their throne of popularity back in the U.S., but they will have to jump over a number of hurdles before doing so. The NFL will need to become more progressive in their adaption to technology as well as in their responses to issues that are currently facing the league right now.

http://fortune.com/2018/05/26/nfl-vs-nba-americas-biggest-sport/

https://www.forbes.com/sites/patrickmurray/2019/01/20/inside-the-nbas-attempts-to-reach-a-global-audience/#7018a07dd2f0

https://www.cnbc.com/2019/01/18/nba-steps-up-its-global-plans-to-take-basketball-to-new-markets.html

https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/17/africa/nba-africa-basketball-league/index.html

https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ftw/2017/05/27/jalen-rose-used-the-nba-and-nfl-logos-to-explain-why-the-two-leagues-are-so-different/102235936/

https://www.forbes.com/sites/shlomosprung/2019/03/04/nba-china-ceo-derek-chang-takes-us-inside-nbas-push-to-make-basketball-worlds-most-popular-sport/#3ce5e98151b0

https://frntofficesport.com/study-nfl-provides-worst-in-stadium-experience-across-pro-sports/

https://www.nba.com/nets/gallery/2018/01/01/nba-mexico-city-games-2017

https://www.strategy-business.com/article/NBA-Commissioner-Adam-Silver-Has-a-Game-Plan?gko=c29f7

https://www.skyword.com/contentstandard/marketing/nfls-brand-crisis-plans-market-differently/

https://www.spredfast.com/social-marketing-blog/3-ways-nfl-excels-social-media-marketing

https://www.sportingnews.com/us/nfl/news/nfl-schedule-london-games-2018-jaguars-eagles-titans-chargers-raiders-seahawks/mh6d3wz8z71b1fkycqudpgg4d

https://www.si.com/nfl/2018/07/10/nfl-nba-player-contracts-salary-cap-kirk-cousins-aaron-rodgers-lebron-james-chris-paul

https://www.wsn.com/nfl/nfl-vs-nba

An incubator of ruckus making marketers.