At the heart of the popularity of the NBA is how the organisation drives its social media strategy by engaging players and attracting younger audiences, says Richard Clarke.
Journalism school does not really teach you to write articles with the angle of “it’s all great, you just keep doing what you are doing”.
Shooting-star advancement, chronic mismanagement or an inexorable slide into oblivion normally create a sexier story.
But then I feel the NBA’s success via social media deserves exceptional treatment in line with its exceptional performance.
This is a competition that has put its money where its Twitter feed is.
And it will reap rewards for years to come.
The metrics show the NBA continued to dominate US sport as the 2018 season came to a close and the Golden State Warriors lifted the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy. Basketball was the most tweeted about sport in the country going into the finals at the start of June. The Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James were most talked about US team and athlete respectively on Twitter.
In addition, it is the only North American sport with over a million members on its Reddit page, the ‘message board’ social media that is rarely mentioned yet still highly influential.
A Gallup poll in 2018 still put NFL (37%) as the most popular sport in the US but basketball (11%) has finally overtaken baseball (9%).
Yet that is not the story here.
In 2016, it was reported that average age of supporters in baseball was 57 and in NFL 50. However, devotees of the NBA were a mere 42. Nielsen data this year put 45 per cent of NBA fans under the age of 35.
You can only think that is going even lower as the league continues its cultural assault on all fronts in order to win the hearts and minds of young Americans (plus those outside).
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said: “The players enjoy being the multidimensional people they are on social media and demonstrating to the public and to their fans that they are more than just basketball players, that they have points of view about what’s happening politically, that they have particular fashion tastes and music tastes.”
He added: “We recognise that the players are the stars, and we treat them as our partners. The fact that the league has their backs when they put themselves out there doesn’t necessarily mean we agree with everything they say. But we want them to know that political speech is protected in this league.”
This was perfectly captured by James’ spat with TV host Laura Ingraham over his suggestion that a US sporting champions’ trip to the White House was tarnished by the current incumbent. He posted an Instagram photo that read “I am more than an athlete” with the hashtag #WeWillNotShutUpAndDribble. The whole affair has started with a tweet from James directed at Trump which started “U bum”. It received 1.5m likes and 700,000 retweets.
While teams were famously asked to tone down their beefs, player v player spats still thrive on social media, with Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers seemingly taking on all-comers last season.
It is an arena in which players can talk like fans about basketball and are almost encouraged to opine about wider issues beyond the game. It is no wonder there were 76m tweets about NBA in the off-season last year.
The other key aspect of the NBA’s social media strategy is the freedom it gives to the use of game highlights. As Silver said: “If we provide those snacks to our fans on a free basis, they’re still going to want to eat meals — which are our games. There is no substitute for the live game experience. We believe that greater fan engagement through social media helps drive television ratings.”
The commissioner argues this approach has been a major contributor to attendances increasing for the fourth straight year and a double-digit uplift in TV audience.
This approach has also allowed content made by fans to create a buzz of its own. In 2010, a 20-year-old programmer called Omar Raja could not find any highlights of James’ time at the Miami Heat outside of the standard TV shots. He started House of Highlights on Instagram and riffed with the footage. It was sold to Bleacher Report a few years later and now has a following of 9.5m on the platform. Other major leagues do not allow such use of their most prized commodity.
The league might be in the midst of a Cavs-Warriors dynasty right now. But the only thing more predictable than the final pairing is the steady growth of the NBA social media buzz based on the most liberal of approaches.
That is an angle worth exploring.
Richard Clarke is a digital and social media consultant. He holds the distinction of having run the social media accounts at major football clubs in the Premier League and MLS, having worked for EPL club Arsenal and MLS club the Colorado Rapids.