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How do you get people to watch NBA basketball? Put the Lakers or Warriors on
Some scientific evidence proving that the Lakers and Warriors are, in fact, popular.
Good morning. Let’s basketball.
Flowering Arches, Giverny; Claude Monet; 1913
There are lots of ways to estimate the popularity of the NBA writ large and individual teams: attendance, TV ratings, social media activity, revenue. But most of this is rather opaque to fans and analysts, and it’s not always relevant to the game itself.
I had an idea last season to leverage one the NBA’s purest expressions of “the game” to measure how much fans are really interested in various teams and various stages of the season: full-game highlight clips on YouTube.
After every NBA game — regular season and playoffs alike — the NBA posts “full-game highlights” on YouTube. These are 10-minute clips that aim to show the most fantastic highlights within a game, usually with special attention paid to how a game is won or lost. I actually watch these a lot because watching 1,200 full games a year is not conducive to me being a functional human. You’ll notice that I sometimes link or embed the full-game highlights here in the newsletter. It is not a replacement for watching a game as an analyst, but for fans who miss a given game, or hear that a certain game was bonkers in a good way? It’s a very nice stand-in.
Video view counts on YouTube are public. I can see, for example, that 193,000 people watched the full-game highlights of Hornets vs. Raptors in January and 4.6 million people watched the full-game highlights of Game 7 of Kings vs. Warriors in April and just 56,000 people watched the full-game highlights of Wizards vs. Pacers in December.
This seems like an interesting way to gauge the popularity of actually watching NBA teams play basketball, even if it’s in highlight form. The data is there for every game.
I do not have data-scraping skills (something I’ve been meaning to learn since about 2006, not sure it’s going to happen), so I wanted to find a relatively easy way to see what teams and circumstances really get people going. So after perusing the full list of games from the season, I set a threshold that ensured we could learn a little something: 2 million views. I decided to pull out all full-game highlight videos with at least 2 million views and see what patterns we find.
Here’s that analysis. I did the initial review in early August, so there may be a case where I’m missing a video or two below if they had an offseason renaissance. (I’m skeptical.)
In the regular season, only 30 games out of 1,260 (2.5%) hit the 2 million views mark. Twenty-eight of those 30 games featured one or both of two teams: the Lakers (19 games) or the Warriors (13 games). And yes, all four of the regular season Lakers vs. Warriors games hit the mark.
Let’s look at that math through another prism. There were 160 regular season games that featured the Lakers and/or the Warriors. The full-game highlights for 28 of those games (18%) reached 2 million views on YouTube. There were 1,100 regular season games that did not feature either the Lakers or Warriors. The full-game highlights for two of them (0.18%) reached 2 million views.
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That is some very clear evidence that when it comes to watching actual regular season NBA basketball — even in extended highlight form — the Lakers and Warriors are an enormous level higher than everyone else.
So what about those other two regular season games whose highlights hit the 2 million views mark? They were Nets at Grizzlies on Oct. 24 and Suns at Mavericks on March 5. That Nets-Grizz game early in the season featured Desmond Bane, Ja Morant, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving all going for at least 37 points in a high-scoring shootout. The Suns-Mavs game also featured Durant and Irving, albeit in their first post-trades face-off. Interesting note: that game was the same night as one of the Lakers vs. Warriors matches. The Lakers-Warriors full-game highlights have 100,000 more views than the Suns-Mavs game. LeBron was out with an injury at the time. Lakers and Warriors over everything, again. Meanwhile, that same night in March, a whopping 58,000 people watched the full-game highlights of Rockets vs. Spurs. Knicks vs. Celtics drew 576,000 views. This is how skewed the scale is for the Lakers and Warriors.
Let’s turn our attention to the postseason. In the playoffs (inclusive of the play-in games), the full-game highlights for 52 out of the 90 games received at least 2 million views on YouTube (58%). This includes every game in the conference finals and NBA Finals. This also includes every postseason game featuring one or both of the Lakers and Warriors. If you pull the 24 Lakers and/or Warriors games out of the total, then 28 of 66 full-game highlights clips (42%) hit the 2 million views mark.
Only one play-in game hit the 2 million mark. It was the Lakers’ play-in game. Of course.
None of the Nuggets’ first-round games against the Timberwolves hit the 2 million mark on YouTube full-game highlights, but everything Denver played after that (vs. Suns, vs. Lakers, vs. Heat) did. (The Nuggets-Wolves game highlights have relatively few YouTube views compared to all other 2023 playoff games except the Sixers-Nets series.) The Heat had 15 games above the 2 million mark: Games 4 and 5 against the Bucks, Game 1 against the Knicks, and then the entire ECF and Finals.
What’s the lesson here, in terms of getting lots of people to watch videos where NBA teams are playing basketball, even in extended highlight form?
People like watching the Lakers right now
People like watching the Warriors right now
People will watch other teams if the stakes are appropriately high
When we’re talking about the broadcast decisions the NBA and its media rights partners make, when we’re talking about what the basketball media spends more time on, when we’re talking about what pays the bills, it’s important to have a firm basis in reality. And here in reality, fans care about the Lakers, the Warriors and championship-level stakes.
Canada vs. Slovenia is happening right around the time I send the newsletter out, so we’ll cover the World Cup knockout round on Thursday. But suffice it to say that Italy was not equipped to match up with a vengeful Team USA on Tuesday, so the Americans move on in a walk. They will face Germany, who edged sharpshooting Latvia a couple hours ago in Franz Wagner’s return to the court.
Meanwhile, Serbia handled Lithuania with ease. This happens sometimes: a team will “get up” to beat Team USA and then lose to someone else in their next game.
More on Thursday.
Christian Wood signs with the Lakers on a 2-year deal. The 2-year deal is nice because it means the Lakers can trade him at the deadline this year. I do wonder if pairing him in units with master defender Anthony Davis might unlock something.
Really interesting piece from Ramona Shelburne on the James Harden-Sixers saga, which includes this incredible nugget: Harden was distraught that he finished fourth in fan voting for All-Star Eastern Conference guard and wasn’t selected as a reserve by coaches. Adam Silver was going to name him an injury replacement if he committed to showing up and playing. But Harden didn’t respond to the commissioner’s office, and Silver got sick of waiting while Harden — in Shelburne’s words — “pouted” so the commish selected Pascal Siakam instead. Incredible!
Ben Thompson is the smartest tech writer alive. So when he writes about the past and future in ESPN it’s a must-read.
Alright, back Thursday with some FIBA World Cup reaction and pre-action. Be excellent to each other.