At first glance, comparing American football to basketball looks like an apples and oranges situation since there are a lot more differences between the two sports leagues than just the shape of the balls they use:
- NFL teams have 53 players while most NBA teams employ only 12-15.
- The NFL teams only play 16 games in a regular season while the NBA teams play 82.
- NFL players purposely collide into each other while NBA players do their best to avoid that.
- The NFL is made up of players of all shapes, speeds and sizes while the NBA prefers only the big and very tall.
- The NFL season culminates with one giant Super Bowl while the NBA season ends with a weeklong, best-out-of-seven-games tournament.
And the list goes on and on.
But when it comes to the NFL and the NBA, what is worth comparing is the one thing that does make them both very similar, and that’s their desire to become America’s favorite (and biggest money making) past time.
Which league is leading in that goal right now?
Which sport do more Americans prefer in 2018?
Which league is better preparing themselves for worldwide domination?
In this article, we’re going to answer those questions and a whole lot more as we examine and compare the NFL and the NBA – their revenue, salaries, viewership, attendance and ratings – and try to figure out which sports league is positioning itself to be number one in America and in the world.
Let’s start by comparing each league’s revenue.
NFL vs NBA: Revenue
Which league makes more money, NFL or NBA?
Since there are only 256 regular-season NFL games each year and 1,230 NBA matchups, you’d think that the bigger overall revenue stream would go to basketball.
But it doesn’t.
Last season, the NFL made $14 billion in total revenue, which was over $900 million more than they made the season before and a $6 billion increase from 2010.
The NBA, on the other hand, made $7.4 billion in revenue last season, up 25% from the prior season when they made a total of $5.94 billion.
NFL teams average more revenue, as well.
NFL sponsorship revenue reached $1.32 billion in the 2017-18 season, with beer, trucks and fast food being among the largest spenders.
NBA sponsorship revenue was $1.12 billion in the 2017-18 season, with insurance, fast food restaurants and medical retail being among the largest spenders. Beer, surprisingly, slipped down two slots to become the seventh biggest NBA sponsor.
What’s the difference in how the two leagues share their revenue?
Of the $14 billion that the NFL made last season, mostly from national media deals, they distributed more than half of it to its individual franchises.
Last season, every NFL team received $226.4 million in national revenue sharing, which comes out to more than $7.2 billion across the league.
To keep the NBA fair, all Basketball Related Income (BRI) – ticket purchases and concessions, TV deals, merchandising rights and apparel sales – is excluded from revenue sharing. Instead, all NBA teams pool their annual revenue together and then redistribute it – from high grossing teams to low grossing ones – and each team receives revenue equal to the salary cap that year. The salary cap for the 2017-18 NBA season was $99.093 million.
Which makes more money – the Super Bowl or the NBA Playoffs?
This one isn’t even close.
The Super Bowl actually brings in more revenue than both the NBA Playoffs and the MLB Playoffs combined.
Last season, the revenue from Super Bowl LII easily surpassed $500 million. Ad spending alone for in-game spots exceeded $400 million, as it did the previous season. Anheuser-Busch InBev and Fiat Chrysler Automotive were the top-spending parent companies in that game.
It’s a lot harder to track the total revenue of the NBA Playoffs since each season it lasts anywhere from four games (if it’s a sweep) to seven games, and obviously the more games there are, the more money there is to be made by everyone.
Some more cynical fans suspect the reason some series go longer is because everyone wants to make more money.
At the end of the 2016-17 season, for instance, the NBA Playoffs between Lebron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors went six games and brought $223.9 million in ad revenue. AdAge reported that, “A seventh game likely would have tossed another $45 million on the pile.”
In last season’s NBA Playoffs, the Warriors swept the Cavs in four games, so the money was considerably less than the prior two years when there were more games.
Bottom line: the Super Bowl typically makes more than twice as much as the NBA Playoffs.
Which teams are worth more, NFL or NBA?
When it comes to team worth, the NFL has the advantage over the NBA by a whopping 52%. That big number is a bit deceiving, though, since that spread has been more than halved in the past five years due to the NBA’s recent growth spurt.
The average NFL team is worth $2.5 billion and according to Forbes Magazine that’s up 8% over last year. All but five of the NFL teams are worth at least $2 billion.
For the eleventh year in a row, the Dallas Cowboys are the NFL’s most valuable team and the world’s most valuable franchise. They’re worth $4.8 billion, and that’s up 14%. The Buffalo Bills are last on the list with a value of $1.6 billion.
The average NBA team is now worth a record $1.65 billion. This is the first time in the history of that league that every team is worth over $1 billion.
The New York Knicks are the most valuable, worth $3.6 billion. Bringing up the NBA rear are the New Orleans Pelicans, worth $1 billion, which is up from $750 million a year ago.
Why are NBA teams worth 22% more in 2018 than in 2017?
Not only have NBA team values increased by 22% in the last year, franchise values have tripled over the last five years.
The major reason for that?
The league has positioned itself into the international market better than any other major U.S. sports league. NBA revenue outside the United States has been growing at a rate in the high teens annually.
Sal Galatioto, the president of leading sports finance and advisory firm Galatioto Sports Partners, says, “The NBA is extremely well-positioned for international growth. The product is excellent, and interest in basketball around the world continues to flourish.”
Much of the NBA’s international reach-out has been focused on China and Mexico.
Is the NFL as international as the NBA?
The NFL hasn’t done as much as the NBA to reach international audiences, and that’s one of the factors that’s hurting its overall numbers. The one region they’re focusing on?
The United Kingdom.
According to the Econ Review, NFL viewers in the United Kingdom increased by 60% in 2017, not an easy feat given that rugby is the primary sport known to those English sports fans.
In 2018, there are three NFL games scheduled to be played in the U.K.:
- Week 6 (Oct 14) the Seattle Seahawks vs. the Oakland Raiders
- Week 7 (Oct 21) the Tennessee Titans vs. the Los Angeles Chargers
- Week 8 (Oct 28) the Philadelphia Eagles vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars
NFL vs NBA: Salaries
What is the average NFL salary compared to the average NBA salary?
First year players in the NFL can expect to make an average of $365,000 per year, and that constantly rises anywhere from $5 to $10 thousand per year. Rookies make their big money through bonuses, including a roster bonus, a signing bonus, contact incentives and a few other formats.
Rookies typically start off at the NFL minimum, but exceptions are made for exceptional players. For example, this year Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield signed a four-year deal worth $32.68 million (with a $21.85 million signing bonus) and running back Saquon Barkley and the New York Giants agreed to a contract worth $31.2 million (with a $20.77 million signing bonus).
The average salary of a typical NFL player is $1.9 million per year while the average salary for an NFL quarterback is about $4 million per year. The top ten highest paid NFL athletes are all quarterbacks – the biggest salaries going to Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons who makes an average of $30 million per season plus $5 million in endorsements and Kirk Cousins of the Minnesota Vikings who makes $28 million per season plus about $1 to $1.5 million in endorsements.
(For a complete list of the NFL’s top ten highest players, check out our in-depth article on all ten of those athletic millionaires.)
The NBA has minimum and maximum salary levels established.
The minimum salary figures are based on the years of NBA experience a player has. A rookie can expect to be paid at least $838,464 per season, and in their second year that jumps to $1,349,383. The minimum salary for a player with five years in the NBA is $1,757,429, and for 10+ years it’s $2,393,887.
Maximum salary levels in the NBA change depending on if you re-sign with a team or go elsewhere.
For instance, a player re-signing with his own team for the 2018-19 NBA season with 6 years or less of experience can’t make more than $25,467,250. With 7-9 years in the NBA, the most a player can make is $30,560,700 per season. With 10+ years in the league, the most they can make is $35,654,150. They can expect an 8% annual raise for up to five years.
For players signing with a new team, the maximums start the same but only raise by 5% yearly up to four years.
The highest paid NBA athletes in 2018 make more considerably more than their NFL counterparts, especially when you consider their endorsements.
LeBron James, who now plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, will make a salary of $33.5 million, but when you add his $52 million worth of endorsement deals, his yearly total will be $85.5 million.
Runner up in the NBA salary department is Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors, who will make $34.9 million in salary and $42 million in endorsements for a grand total of $76.9 million.
Why do NFL players make less total money than NBA players?
It actually comes down to basic math.
There are 32 NFL teams with 53-man rosters, so that’s 1,696 players getting a share of endorsements and league revenue.
In the NBA, there are 30 teams but each normally has 12-15 players on their roster, so there are only 450 total NBA players vying for endorsement deals.
Where it really makes a difference is with revenue sharing.
How much do the NFL and NBA players get in revenue sharing?
As a result of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the NFL and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), the NFL currently shares 48.5 percent of all league revenue with its players. In 2017, the NFL ownership kept just over $8 billion in revenue for themselves, while the players took just less than that.
Under the current labor contract, NBA players get about half of all league revenue before expenses. That means last season they shared roughly $3.7 billion.
But here is where the NBA has an advantage over the NFL.
There are a whole lot more football players than basketball players, so each piece of the NFL revenue pie will always be smaller than the NBA slice.
League revenues are split between 1,696 total players in the NFL while in the NBA it’s only split between 450 players.
$8 billion / 1,696 = $4.717 million per NFL player.
$3.7 billion / 450 = $8.222 million per NBA player.
NFL vs NBA: Viewership
Which is viewed more in the U.S., the NFL or the NBA?
There’s no doubt NFL viewership is going down according to Austin Karp of the Sports Business Daily.
NBC’s Sunday Night Football, ESPN’s Monday Night Football and the shared Thursday Night Football package (between NBC, CBS, NFL Network and Amazon) all declined in viewership for the second straight season.
NBC’s Sunday Night Football
2017: 18.175 million
2016: 20.323 million
2015: 22.522 million
ESPN’s Monday Night Football
2017: 10.757 million
2016: 11.390 million
2015: 12.896 million
Thursday Night Football (NBC/CBS/NFL Network)
2017: 10.937 million
2016: 12.438 million
2015: 12.425 million
So how do those declining NFL viewership numbers compare to the NBA?
It’s not even close.
According to Variety, the NBA’s average television viewership rose to a four-year high in 2017-2018. The Nielson-measured average total viewers for national telecasts of NBA games was up 8% from the 2016-17 season at 1.28 million. And that’s across the league’s four television-network partners — ABC, ESPN, NBA TV, TNT — and the highest average since the NBA’s 2013-14 season.
In other words, for right now, the NFL has nothing to worry about, but given the downward trend of NFL numbers and the upward surge of NBA viewers, that may not always be the case.
When did the NBA start playing and broadcasting in China?
In 2004, the NBA became the first American professional sports league to play in China when Yao Ming’s Houston Rockets beat the Sacramento Kings in a preseason game in Shanghai.
"There are 300 million people that play basketball in China," NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum told CNN. "We have over 100 million social media followers in China."
During the 2017-18 NBA season, the Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves played two preseason games in China, at Shenzhen on October 5 and Shanghai on October 8. Minnesota won the first game 111–97, while Golden State came out on top of the second one, 142–110.
Why doesn’t the NFL try broadcasting in China?
Two words: time difference.
"There isn't a single [NFL] game that is convenient for Chinese fans -- aside from the UK one," says Mark Waller, the NFL's head of international development.
That’s because regular kickoff times in the United States are at 1:00 PM & 4:00 PM EST, and in China that’s one o’clock and four o’clock in the morning. Despite that, the NFL attracts 500-700 thousand Chinese viewers who are willing to watch football in the middle of the night.
The other big problem with NFL China?
The long flight between America and China make it tough to imagine how a regular season game could happen there without disrupting the weeks before and after.
Which is viewed more – the Super Bowl or the NBA Playoffs?
It’s estimated that 103.4 million people worldwide watched the Philadelphia Eagles beat the New England Patriots, 41-33, in Super Bowl LII last season. The season before that saw slightly higher numbers when 111.3 viewers tuned in to Super Bowl LI.
Despite more people watching the 2017 NBA finals than had in nearly two decades, the games still only averaged 20.4 million viewers. The biggest night of the series was in the fifth (and final) game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State when 24.5 million people tuned in.
NFL vs NBA: Attendance
Who had more fans attending games last season, the NFL or NBA?
This part of the contest goes to the NBA. The reason?
Attendance is a numbers game, and with more actual games being played in the NBA than in the NFL, it’s actually surprising that it’s even this close.
Last season, 17,253,425 people attended NFL games, while 21,997,412 NBA fans went to games. Yes, the NBA attracted 5 million more people than the NFL, but that’s not as many as one would think given the big difference in the number of games each league plays per season.
Here’s the math:
The NFL has 32 teams, each plays 16 games, so that’s 256 games per season.
The NBA has 30 teams, each plays 82 games, so that’s 1,230 games per season.
So 17,253,425 NFL fans attended 256 games, so that’s an average of 67,396 people per game.
21,997,412 NBA fans attended 1,230 games, so that’s an average of 17,884 people per game.
That’s the reason NBA games are played in arenas and NFL games are played in stadiums.
Obviously, adding more games to the NFL schedule would be financially beneficial to the league, but the violent nature of the sport of professional football prevents them from doing that.
Who has a higher average ticket price, the NFL or NBA?
Last season the average cost of an NFL ticket was $92.98 according to data from Team Marketing Report. That was up 8.3 percent from the previous season.
The average price for an NBA ticket last season was $70, and during the 2018-19 season it’s predicted to be $89, which is a 27.14% increase.
The average cost of a Super Bowl LII ticket on secondary ticket providers like StubHub, Ticketmaster, TickPick and Vivid Seats was well over $5,000.
The average price to catch a game at Oracle Arena in Oakland during the 2018 NBA Finals was $1,727 according to TicketCity, the world’s largest privately held ticketing company. It was a whole lot less expensive to watch at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, as the average ticket price there is $689.
It’s reported that one man paid $133,000 for two floor seats to see Game 5 of the 2017 NBA finals, and that’s including $17,000 in fees. At face value, courtside seats normally range from $4,000 to $5,500.
Which league’s attendance is on a rise, whose is falling?
On September 24, 2017, Donald Trump tweeted:
...NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 24. september 2017
Some numbers back him up on that, showing an 8% decline in attendance since the 2016 season. This is said to be due to both the sudden attention to concussions and the resulting CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) as well as from a negative response to NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racial inequality.
(For more details on the players’ peaceful protest, please read our extensive article explaining the NFL kneeling controversy.)
NBA attendance, on the other hand, seems to be on the rise.
According to the NBA, last season the league set the all-time regular-season attendance record for a third consecutive season:
- 2016-17 attendance was 21,997,412
- 2015-16 attendance was 21,972,129
- 2014-15 attendance was 21,926,548
It’s clear that currently NBA fans are attending more games than ever while NFL fans are attending less. A trend that has NFL front offices in a panic and NBA owners smoking stogies and popping champagne.
NFL vs NBA: Ratings
Which league has the better ratings, NFL or NBA?
According to the Nielsen Ratings, NFL television ratings fell 9.7 percent during the 2017-18 season. And that follows the 8 percent drop in ratings from the season prior.
The NBA, on the other hand, says the ratings of its ESPN games (there were 30 of them last season) are up by 18 percent and its TNT telecasts (16 games last season) have ratings that are up by 25 percent.
So does that mean the NBA has more viewers?
Not by a long shot.
The ESPN NBA broadcasts average 1.8 viewers a game while the TNT broadcasts attract 2.1 million viewers.
Now look at the NFL numbers and you’ll see they’re still the clear winner.
For example, a Week 17 regular season game on FOX attracted 5.5 million viewers, while the least watched game on CBS attracted 2.9 million viewers.
The highest watched regular season NBA game this season was against the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets in May of 2018. 14.l8 million viewers tuned in to see the Warriors win 101-92.
The highest watched regular season NFL game last season was when the New England Patriots played the Pittsburg Steelers in December and attracted 26.88 million viewers.
America’s new favorite pastime: the NFL or the NBA?
It’s not an easy call to make.
Except for salaries and total attendance, the NFL still seems to have a lot bigger numbers than the NBA.
Take a look.
NFL … $14 billion
NBA …$7.4 billion
NFL … $1.32 billion
NBA … $1.12 billion
Average Team Worth:
NFL … $2.5 billion
NBA … $1.65 billion.
NFL Rookie … $365,000 per year
NBA Rookie … $838,464 per season
NFL player …$1.9 million per year
NFL quarterback … $4 million per year
NBA second year player … $1,349,383
NBA five year player … $ 1,757,429
NFL top salary …$30 million per season plus $5 million in endorsements
NBA top salary … $33.5 million + $52 million in endorsement deals = $85.5 million.
NFL … NBC’s Sunday Night Football 18.175 million; ESPN’s Monday Night Football
10.757 million, Thursday Night Football (NBC/CBS/NFL Network) 10.937 million
NBA … 1.28 million
NFL … 17,253,425 total
NBA … 21,997,412 total
NFL … 67,396 people per game
NBA … 17,884 people per game
NFL … from 2.9 million to 5.5 million viewers for Week 17 games
NBA … ESPN averages 1.8 million viewers a game while TNT averages 2.1 million viewers.
NFL … highest viewed game drew 26.88 million viewers
NBA … highest viewed game drew 14.l8 million viewers
It would be easy for the NFL to sit on their huge numbers and assume that would be enough to stay on top of the NBA, but that would ignore their own downward spiral and the upward trend that the NBA is now experiencing.
The NFL has to address dangerous play and controversial protests if it hopes to win this battle in the long run.
In fact, the NFL has made rule changes to try to reduce the number of injuries, particularly concussions, sustained by its players, but the fact that football is an inherently brutal game prevents it from ever being injury-free.
The NFL attempted to address the kneeling controversy by allowing players to sit out the anthem in the locker room while demanding those who do appear on the sidelines stand, but they didn’t consult the NFL Players Association before creating that rule and now they’re having to deal with upset fans and an angry players’ union.
The NBA features a fairly safe sport that you can play in your driveway, hot player-endorsed shoes, an international marketing strategy and a commissioner who seems a lot more in touch with what his players deserve than his counterpart does, so they’re definitely a force with which the NFL must reckon.
For now, the NFL reigns supreme, but unless they make some major changes in the way they do business, they shouldn’t count on that being true for very much longer.