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TikTok’s growth pushes platform into key engagement role for sports properties

  • ByteDance-owned short-form video platform was third-most downloaded app in first quarter of 2019 
  • NBA’s All-Star Game hashtag challenge on app has received “staggering” 120 million views to date 
  • Sports teams and leagues lured by TikTok’s “valuable” demographic, which skews young and female   

As TikTok has grown into one of the world’s most popular social-media apps during the past year, the short-form video-sharing platform has become an important tool for sports rights-holders to expand and engage their fanbases. 

Leading sports properties such as the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, the International Cricket Council, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and soccer teams including Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool, as well as many others, are creating content on the app, which allows users to post up to 15-second video clips which are often accompanied by music and video effects.  

TikTok is the international version of Douyin, which was created for the Chinese market by parent company ByteDance, a Chinese tech conglomerate, in September 2016. Looking to expand internationally – especially in the United States – ByteDance launched TikTok the following year but it struggled to make any headway.  

To improve the app’s fortunes, ByteDance acquired rival short-form video platform Musical.ly – a lip-synching app popular among teenagers in the US and Europe – for approximately $1bn in December 2017 before consolidating all data and accounts into one platform and relaunching it in August 2018 under the TikTok brand. 

The results have been staggering. TikTok has garnered a reported one billion downloads and, according to app analytics firm Sensor Tower, it was the third most-downloaded app worldwide in the first quarter of 2019, ahead of Facebook and Instagram. ByteDance’s valuation, meanwhile, has jumped from $20bn to $75bn. 

As well as its functionality and creativity, one of TikTok’s main appeals to sports and entertainment brands is its demographic, which skews young and female. In February 2019, the platform had approximately 26.5 million Monthly Active Users (MAUs) in the US – out of a total of 500 million MAUs globally – of which 60 per cent were aged 16-to-24 and 63 per cent were female. 

With TikTok available in 150 markets and 75 languages, many global-facing sports properties are now using the platform to complement and supplement their social-media efforts. And with many social networks banned in China – such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – sister app Douyin has become a key tool with which to reach a Chinese audience. 

“When we think about platforms that we’re going to join, we think about a couple of things,” Bob Carney NBA’s vice-president of social and digital content, tells SportBusiness. “One is, ‘if we have a presence can it tangibly serve our larger company goals?’, and when you think about those company goals that’s acquiring fans, introducing fans to who our players are and ultimately driving larger business goals such as getting fans to watch our games on TV.

“Often in our TikTok posts, when we’re promoting a player on a given day, it’s typically a day that that player will be on national TV where most fans will have most access to see that particular player. So we include in our captions the messaging of where they can watch these games – ultimately that’s the goal and the purpose.  

“The other is ‘can we reach a new, unique and valuable audience?’ and the platform skews very young, most of our audience is under the age of 24, and it skews female. It’s an audience that we’re not typically reaching in the other social media platforms. 

“Lastly, ‘can we offer content that’s unique to what we’re offering on other platforms?’ and TikTok by its nature the content is very unique. So from our perspective it ticked all three boxes and therefore it became a logical place for us to join and build out a presence.” 

Benefits from being an early adopter 

The NBA is reaping the rewards of becoming an early adopter of the platform, with approximately five million followers on TikTok and another five million on Douyin.  

Having had the most popular brand on Musical.ly, which it joined in October 2016, the NBA was in prime position to capitalize on the TikTok merger in 2018. “When Musical.ly rolled into TikTok we already had a large presence and I do think it propelled the following even more once the platforms merged,” Carney adds.  

While the NBA puts some highlights of game action on TikTok, the app is primarily used for quirky, behind-the-scenes content, often on an exclusive basis. “Our overall social media strategy is that we optimize for every single platform. They often get lumped together as social media but in reality they are completely different,” says Carney.  

“There are things that we only put on TikTok just because they are not as optimized for another platform. Where we’ve seen a ton of success is all of the fun in-arena entertainment that is happening around our game, during pre-game, during time-outs, during half-time.  

“We are very focused on programming the entire event, so when our fans enter our venue it’s an experience throughout the entire game and the content that is being used to entertain the fans in the arena – like the skits mascots might do or military members coming home to surprise family members – we are using it on TikTok and we have seen great success. That content, while it will perform OK on other platforms, is optimized for TikTok.” 

In November 2018, the NBA signed a multi-year global partnership with ByteDance that brought customized content to its Douyin, Toutiao and Xigua Video platforms in China and select local-language content on TikTok in the US, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea. Financial terms were not disclosed.  

As part of the deal, the NBA has worked with ByteDance to create NBA-themed online campaigns to encourage fan participation and interaction such as challenges and customized stickers. The most successful initiative thus far has been the #allstartalent hashtag challenge during the NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte in February which, according to Carney, received 44 million video views during All-Star Weekend and has reached 120 million total views to date. “It’s a staggering number,” he says. 

The NBA has social media staff dedicated to TikTok, who help decide which content is best for the platform and how it fits in best with the app’s trending hashtags. “[The hashtags] are incredibly important to the platform and ensuring that you are finding content that is relevant to those hashtags requires someone that is all-in every day thinking about it,” says Carney. 

“We’re obsessed with the data. We pore over the data on the daily, weekly and monthly strategy and constantly making tweaks to try to optimize [our content].” 

A key platform to help international growth  

Many other sports properties are still finding their way on TikTok. The National Hockey League has approximately 10,000 followers after joining in March 2019, while the New York Knicks, who launched an account in June, have just 250 followers. 

Major League Baseball, meanwhile, has 377,000 followers on its official account after joining the app in January. The league is in an “early, figure-it-out, experimental phase right now” on TikTok, admits Barbara McHugh, MLB’s senior vice-president of marketing.  

But its executives are extremely keen to engage with the platform’s young demographic, not least because of baseball’s comparatively old fanbase. According to Nielsen ratings, 50 per cent of the sport’s audience are 55 or older, up from 41 per cent a decade ago. 

“In general, we like to be early adopters of new technology and new platforms, with TikTok being in that category of being on the newer side, we saw it as in interesting platform [to be on],” McHugh tells SportBusiness. “We’ve been pleased and happy with the initial feedback and the numbers that we’re seeing. But it is certainly early stages and that is what is exciting about it as it’s a new platform and [there are] tons of opportunities to grow.  

“We’re also intrigued and excited by TikTok’s demographics, skewing young and female, and we’re certainly seeing that with our followers and those that are engaging with the content that we’re pushing out there. That’s interesting for us as we’re actively looking to engage with those demographics.” 

International growth is key to MLB’s business and overall marketing strategy, having recently held a two-games series in London between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, as well as opening a regional office in India. Having a strong presence on TikTok will help MLB’s overseas efforts, says McHugh. 

“We see it as an opportunity to continue to try different pieces of content and continue to keep an eye on the metrics on what sticks, what is getting the most traction and engagement,” she adds. “One example, is the international reaction has been great so far, particularly in India and Japan. Particularly when we had our opening series in Japan [between the Oakland A’s and the Seattle Mariners] we saw a lot of traction there on the content we were pushing on TikTok.” 

MLB has also great success on Douyin in China, with the MLB Perfect Pitch 2019 Hip Hop Challenge, a content campaign targeting youngsters generating over 13 million video views in just two days. 

TikTok, meanwhile, has benefited from the demise of short-form video platform Vine, which shut down in 2016, having been acquired by Twitter for a reported $30m in 2012. But it is also facing new competitors in this field, such as Facebook’s Lasso video-sharing app, which launched last year, while Vine co-founder Dom Hofmann is in the early stages of relaunching Vine as an app called Byte. 

ByteDance, though, is bullish about TikTok’s chances of long-term success and says sports content will play an “important” part in its growth. “At its core, TikTok is a platform for creative, fun, and positive experiences. And it’s because of this that sports related content continues to grow in popularity on the platform and became an important category,” says a TikTok spokesman. 

TikTok is a destination where fans can feel like they’re a part of the team and live an experience that feels authentic and exciting. Our mission is to bring the intensity and excitement of the live experience from the fans, the food, the camaraderie between players, the mascots – to our users. That enriches their experience and brings them closer to the sports and teams they love.” 

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