This is not the NBA that I grew up watching. As a teenager in London, I had to set the VCR to record the early-hours broadcast of the NBA’s game of the week on Channel 4.
Today, fans around the world have access to every game via NBA League Pass, enjoy never-ending highlights on YouTube, all the while getting 24/7 access to their favorite players via their social channels. The game has evolved dramatically, and its players have never been more accessible, even during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The NBA led the way in postponing the 2019-20 season on March 11, 2020, which took incredible foresight and leadership. One could argue that by being one of the first movers in professional sports, the NBA was well positioned to identify the right solution for its business (resuming the season in a bubble) that enabled the sport to continue to thrive even under the most challenging of circumstances.
The continued growth of the NBA should be attributed to the fact that it has embraced the challenge of connecting with fans in new and distinct ways. This evolution has only been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, enabling the league to test different approaches and technologies to enhance the fan journey and experience.
This rapid adoption of a new model of fan engagement has allowed the NBA to not just maintain existing partners but also add to an impressive stable of brands during a global lockdown (Clorox and Mondelez International being some more recent and notable additions).
These brand partnerships arise because the NBA is nimble, and makes a point of empowering its players.
NBA players sit at the apex of American pop culture – every twist and turn on the court translating to off-court influence and impact. This was perhaps most powerfully showcased during the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020.
The movement and protests were given a boost by NBA players from every background and team speaking up and participating. The NBA and NBPA deftly understood that this was a movement that needed to be embraced by the sport and society – from its simple yet powerful adoption of Black Lives Matter script on the court itself to most recently playing a condensed All-Star weekend in recognition of and showcasing HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities].
The NBA ecosystem understands it needs to do its part, and that its players are at the centre of everything it does, and its role is to help spotlight the passions and the work that the players are doing.
This collaborative approach also extends to how the NBA works with corporate brands. Understanding and embracing change has brought about new opportunities for brands who continue to look for marketing moments that are grounded in local/regional passions but also have national/international appeal.
This mindset enabled the NBA to prepare for and address the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic by delivering solutions that allowed marketers to pivot with the inevitable changes to the fan experience. As the NBA reimagined its game experience – transitioning all games to the ‘bubble’ – it also considered implications for its brand partners. Michelob ULTRA Courtside was indicative of this.
A few weeks prior to the restart of the NBA season in the ‘bubble’, my team and I worked closely with Michelob ULTRA and the NBA to strategise and ultimately execute the brand’s first foray into professional basketball by bringing fans closer to the game at a time when no outsiders were physically allowed in an NBA gym, resulting in the unveiling of “Michelob ULTRA Courtside”.
This was an immersive virtual experience that allowed fans to appear on screens built inside the arena and share in the excitement of the game through Microsoft technology that allowed them to cheer on their team in a way that has never been done before. The Courtside experience was complex and ever changing, but the NBA was committed to delivering on the vision and quickly adapting to the new circumstances.
As a result, Michelob ULTRA was able to enjoy prominent placement throughout the return of the game with ongoing exposure within games and highlights. This reimagined fan experience ultimately contributed to the brand, which saw a noticeable shift in sales – a 25-per-cent increase attributed to Courtside.
The creation of this successful new platform was the result of the Covid-19 pandemic but its legacy will be something we continue to build on and adapt as the new fan experience continues to take shape.
This season, most of ULTRA’s team partnerships include locally relevant evolutions of Courtside. At the League level, for those watching the NBA All-Star game in Atlanta, you will have seen an improved experience where 20 frontline workers were celebrated via Courtside. Once we return to a new normal, ULTRA and the NBA will continue to work together to see how we can take Courtside to the next level.
The NBA’s commitment to constant improvement and evolution makes it an attractive partner for brands looking to make a meaningful impact with consumers. Across every aspect of its business, the NBA is willing to try new tech and experiences.
All of these small adjustments are having a meaningful impact on the way in which brands and consumers engage with the sport. Constant reinvention is in the NBA’s DNA, and it is this attribute that allows the sport to thrive with consumers, remaining at the forefront for global brands.
Michael Uva works for 160over90, an Endeavor company, spearheading sports marketing work for brands like Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola.