NBA popularity rising above the NFL

Photo Illustration by Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Professional sports are comparable to any other type of entertainment.

They’re about providing a product the audience wants and being better than competitors. They’re also about being adaptable and establishing a brand in a changing world. Professional sports need to continually develop ways to retain fans’ attention. By these standards, there’s increasing evidence that the NBA has surpassed the NFL in popularity.

Ever since the 1980s, the NBA has been transforming by becoming a “player’s league” that directs interest toward competition between the league’s superstars. This has shifted the NBA’s focal point from its teams to the player’s brand. The free agency offseason of football and basketball seem to be dominated by the NBA. NFL players tend to remain on their current team while the NBA drama of where a player will sign keeps fans engaged year-round. The stars in the league have more leverage than ever, allowing them to switch teams upon request. Other leagues have this feature, but NBA players, more often than not, see their requests granted. Meanwhile, the NFL hasn’t done much recently to enhance its identity. While the league is giving attention to player safety, it’s failing to react to the declining interest in the league.

The NBA appeals to a larger overall audience than the NFL, especially with younger fans. Since they don’t wear helmets, basketball players’ faces are more recognizable, and their raw emotions and expressions are there for all to see. Additionally, there are fewer players on an NBA team roster (15) than on an NFL roster (53). Off the court, most NBA players are flashier dressers than NFL players, with a focus on their game day “street clothes” outfits. As a result, NBA players have become fashion icons, which has proven to be a strong connection with younger fans.

Around the globe, basketball is more popular than football. The NFL has made strides to expand the game globally by scheduling games in England and Mexico. But as of 2017, the NFL had the lowest number of international players among professional sports leagues at a mere 2.6%. Players in the NBA come from countries all around the world. In the 2018–19 season, there were 108 international players who made up 24% of team rosters, coming from record-tying 42 countries. The percentage of foreign players in the league reached an all-time high in 2016 at 25.1%. Foreign players continue to take the league by storm with promising young international talent such as Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid and DeAndre Ayton. This influx of foreign talent has been instrumental in basketball’s growth and doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

When it comes to television viewership statistics, the two sports aren’t comparable. Most NFL games are played on Sundays, and it’s only a 16-game season, followed by single-elimination playoff rounds. The NBA, on the other hand, has games every night with an 82 game, six-month season that concludes with playoff rounds that are played as a best of seven series. While looking at the championship games, this past NFL championship game viewership has been declining recently. This past Super Bowl had 103.5 million watchers, down from 111.3 million in the 2017–18 season. Given that the NBA Finals has at least four games, the numbers are significantly lower than the Super Bowl. However, the 2017 NBA Finals was the most-watched since 1998 with 20.4 million viewers per game. Also, trends in gameday attendance do lean toward the NBA. The NFL has experienced an 8% decline in attendance since the 2016 season. In 2018, 17.1 people attended NFL games — the lowest since 2015.

Meanwhile, the NBA set an all-time regular-season attendance record in 2018–19 for the fourth consecutive season with total attendance at close to 22 million. For the fifth year in a row, the league set a record for sold-out games (760), and for a record-setting second straight year, games played to 95% capacity in arenas.

To the average sports fan, the NFL might seem to be the dominant league, but by many measures, the NBA is overtaking the NFL in popularity. Today’s youth is embracing basketball with endorsed signature player shoes, the ability to play in your driveway, and interaction of players with fans on social media. While the fan base for football will always be there, data and other evidence prove the NBA is on the rise with no decline in sight for the foreseeable future.

Fifth Year Senior at James Madison University. I can be contacted at