Winning Time: Why The NBA Was So Unpopular in the


The NBA was unpopular during the 1970s period Winning Time starts in due to a lack of TV coverage, racial prejudice, scandals, and a lack of stars.

In HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, Jerry Buss buys the Los Angeles Lakers, but many believe it’s an unwise investment given the NBA’s unpopularity in the 1970s. His mother refers to the team as a “money pit,” and at a meeting of NBA owners, there are jokes about the league’s low TV ratings. This may come as a shock to modern viewers, who know the NBA as one of the world’s most successful sports leagues, but it is accurate of the time period of 1979 when basketball was struggling to gain popularity for a variety of reasons.

Created by Adam McKay and using his distinctive fourth-wall-breaking style, Winning Time is a stylized account of the real-life history of how the Lakers became the NBA’s biggest dynasty, raising the league’s popularity along the way. The NBA got started later than North America’s other “Big 4” leagues, beginning in 1945. While the NFL took advantage of the rise of television, the NBA struggled to surpass the existing fanbases of older leagues like MLB and NHL. Average attendance was around 8,000 per game, meaning arenas were often at half capacity or less. The 1979 NBA finals did a 7.2 rating, a meager number in an era where there were only three networks. Many teams were losing money, and while none ceased operations, the future of the league seemed shaky when Jerry and his daughter, Jeanie Buss became involved with the Lakers.


RELATED: Winning Time Sets Up The Epic 1980s Lakers/Celtics Rivalry

Sadly, many commentators at the time attributed the league’s difficulties to the dominance of Black athletes and racist audience attitudes. It was only a decade after the height of the Civil Rights movement and the end of legal segregation in the southern United States, and there were questions about whether white Americans could be interested in a predominantly Black league. Winning Time references this with Buss mentioning during his opening monologue that some think the color of the league is “too dark,” and a sequence that compares the way college basketball announcers talked about Magic Johnson, who is Black, and white star Larry Bird.

The NBA’s poor TV coverage also limited its ability to grow. 1970 was the first time the NBA Finals were televised in full, with broadcaster ABC preferring to air only one game a week on Sunday afternoons. When the NBA moved to CBS, they had more games aired, but many were tape-delayed, airing as late as 11:30pm on weeknights on the East Coast. While tape-delayed sports were less alienating in a pre-social media age, CBS’s broadcasting strategy still suggested that basketball was a second-tier sport, frustrated fans, and prevented the NBA’s growth.

The 1970s also lacked dominant teams or star players. Part-time actor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the league’s biggest name, but as Jerry West mentions in Winning Time, his outspoken political beliefs and Muslim faith were seen as potentially alienating. While hardcore fans may love periods of parity, dominant teams are crucial for attracting casual fan attention. In the 1970s the NBA had eight different champions, with only two teams repeating. The league lacked the defining rivalry that would emerge between the Lakers and Celtics in the 1980s, the true story that Winning Time covers.

Lastly, the NBA was also hit with a number of scandals in the 1970s that damaged its reputation. Drug use in the league was rampant, with a number of players suffering from high-profile addiction issues. There were also several high-profile fights, including an on-court brawl during the 1976 NBA Finals where a fan punched a referee. While there would be many future NBA controversies, stories like these were especially damaging in the 1970s due to the league’s already-low popularity. However, the NBA’s popularity would explode in the 1980s and 90s through the rise of stars like Johnson, Bird, and Michael Jordan. Among other narratives, Winning Time aims to tell the true story of how the NBA recovered from its 1970s nadir and became the cultural juggernaut it is today.

NEXT: Winning Time: Why Jerry West Isn’t Happy After Winning The Championship

Winning Time airs new episodes Sundays on HBO Max.

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About The Author Robert Hutton (154 Articles Published)

Rob Hutton is a feature writer for Screen Rant. He has a PhD in English and has previously been published by both academic and popular publications. Rob is a lifelong fan of science-fiction and fantasy. In his spare time Rob watches old television, watches weird movies, and writes an unpublishable novel.

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