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Why isn’t anyone watching the Mavericks?

It’s been a tough year for NBA regional network viewer ratings, and the Mavericks have seen the biggest dip of any team in the league. Why?

NBA: Houston Rockets at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Remember all those news bites about NFL ratings being down last year?

Well, according to a recent Sports Business Daily article, NBA regional sports networks (RSNs) are down this year as well. In aggregate, they’re down 15 percent year-over-year with 20 or more teams showing flat or softer ratings than last year. Who’s at the very bottom?

Your Dallas Mavericks, down 53 percent compared to last year!

Now, there are a lot of reasons for this. We saw NFL ratings getting dumped on when they went head to head against the election debate nights. Well, much of the NBA season has overlapped with either an historic election, a somewhat bumpy transition, a hotly debated inauguration and then more recent controversial political news.

Sports-wise, it’s also been competitive. The 2016 World Series broke all sorts of viewing records, with a game seven in November, as the Cubs won their first chip in 108 years. That sucked up a lot of sports oxygen and bandwidth. More locally, the resurgent Cowboys had their best season in probably a decade and a local celebrity named Dirk was out for 24 of the first 29 games.

Still, let’s see if we can unpack some of the on-the-court basketball reasons the ratings of the ten teams listed in the Sports Business Daily article might’ve moved the way they did. Here, they have the five most improved teams on the left and the five worst on the right:

“NBA’s RSN ratings down 15 percent this season”. Sports Business Daily. February 20, 2017.

Now I, the dutiful blogger, will just go to the regression coal mines to extract some model. You, the loyal blog reader, just sit right there and enjoy the output:

OLS regression of NBA ratings vs winning percentage.

When we look at it this way (and we only have ten teams to look at), we can see a few things.

“Just win, baby”

Winning percentage year over year alone is quite predictive of NBA RSN ratings, regardless of what is happening in the non-sports hemisphere. The main thing to note is the R-squared value, basically a statistical measure between 0 and 1 that tells you what fraction of the total change in one thing (here, the increase or decrease in TV ratings year over year) can be explained by the change in another thing (in this case, the increase or decrease in a team’s win percentage in the same period).

Here the R-squared value is .6, so the “model” is pretty decent for a single variable. When I add a couple more variables, such as prior year and current year win percentages, it improves to .76, so winning matters when it comes to ratings.

But it’s more about winning more or less than last year

However, you’ll see teams that are doing well (such as the Spurs) that are down because the model is accounting for win percentage change and the Spurs, while still very good this year at .768, aren’t at their .839 pace from last year.

Overall, the win-to-rating ratio is about 1:3. So for every absolute percentage point change in a team’s win-loss record, the ratings go up or down correspondingly by about three percentage points. In other words, the win-starved Sixers fans are tuning into this year’s .375 team because of the theory of relativity.

Dallas is doing very poorly in the ratings this year because it had one of the worst drops in win percentage compared to last year, down almost 12.5 percentage points. Based on this change, the model predicts Dallas should be down about 35 percent in the ratings, which it is, when you account for the league wide drop of about 15 percent. The two added together puts the Mavs down 50 percent year over year.

New year, new Mavericks

As the Mavs have rounded into form in the new year with Seth Curry the starter, Dirk Nowitzki the center and Yogi the Mania, the team is 12-10. That’s in the ballpark of their record this time last year, so without peeking behind the curtains (audiences may not actually be very responsive to short-term changes in win percentage), my guess is the Dallas’ RSN ratings of late are pretty similar to last year. Let’s go to a live shot of Cuban sort of smiling about it:

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Dallas Mavericks
“Mark - the ratings are probably back to flat!”
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Things should also pick up after the trade deadline as the Mavs pulled off a rare win now-win later trade by acquiring Nerlens Noel.

There are some outliers (Pelicans and Nuggets noticeably) that are hard for me to explain with the given data and without more work, but some considerations might be the TV match-ups, closeness of games or just Anthony Davis being a healthy monster.

Now, how does this analysis affect the Mavericks’ playoff chances?

The short answer is it doesn’t, but at least you have some idea if your neighbor really caught the game when you ask them.