How the NBA Has Become The Best Professional Sports League on Social Media

Back in September, I did a case study on how the NBA was in position to eventually overtake the NFL as the most popular league in the U.S., in part because of its social media presence and following. I figured I’d add it to my website to have on file. Below you can read the case study, and find a link to the final paper, including references and footnotes.


Introduction

Since 2006, social media has been a major part of life for many individuals. Facebook, which launched in 2004 as a social network for college students, expanded to allow all users above the age of 13 to use the site, while Twitter launched in July of that year. As more people became users on social media, companies and brands realized that the platforms offered new opportunities to market themselves and interact with consumers, as the brands could now have a more direct line of communication to their audience.

Sports leagues, while more popular than most brands, are also companies, and began to interact on social media shortly thereafter. The Sacramento Kings were the first team in the National Basketball Association (NBA) to join Twitter in January 2007. The Kings, like essentially every professional sports team in the United States, understand the benefits that being active on social media bring, and are reaping the rewards in different ways. Andrew Nicholson, VP of Digital for the Kings, spoke with SportTechie and mentioned that the Kings’ social media efforts have led directly to an increase in attendance through engaging promotions, giveaways, and viral videos.

This case study will focus on the NBA, while looking at the National Football League (NFL) as well, and investigate why the NBA has become regarded as the best league in terms of social media use and strategy. Despite not being the most popular professional sports league in the U.S. the NBA has garnered acclaim for its use of social media and cutting edge technology to keep fans more engaged than possible previously. While Facebook has the most amount of users, this study will focus on the teams and league’s uses on Twitter, because of the platform’s fit as a second screen experience. The quick sharing of information and ability to serve as a content community, make for it to be the go to place for people to discuss a trending topic, whether that be a sporting event, the season finale of Game of Thrones, or political gossip.

Literature Review

The NFL led the charge when it came to enforcing the use of its content on social media in 2009. The other three major professional sports (National Hockey League, Major League Baseball, NBA) soon followed. The NFL created an entirely new social media policy, which included rules about how long before and after games players and personnel could tweet, and restrictions on social media users posting detailed play-by-play and video of games. In restricting the players, the league wanted to ensure that the media had the first chance to get reactions and soundbites from the players.

On the second issue, the league was concerned that people posting play-by-play would lead to viewers following the game through social media posts, which could lead to declining viewership on the TV networks that pay the league for the rights to air its games. Eventually that led to the league adopting what’s considered the strictest social media policy among the major sports. Over the years, the NFL set up further restrictions on social media use, most notably not allowing GIFs or videos to be posted by any account other than its own. This meant that NFL teams couldn’t post video content of their players or teams during gameplay. To share game video, they would have to retweet a post from the league’s account. Misuse could lead to fines ranging from $25,000 to $100,000. According to Wired, in October 2015, “the NFL sent over a dozen takedown notices to Twitter.” Essentially, these notified Twitter that users were in violation of the NFL’s policy, leading to posts being deleted, and accounts suspended.

The NBA similarly, set up restrictions on how soon before and after a game players could post to social media. As opposed to the NFL, the NBA allowed the reproduction and distribution of highlights on social media. This allowance has led to social media use among fans skyrocketing, and led to the term “NBA Twitter” being coined. Follow a certain section of the platform at night during the NBA season, and you will find an assortment of GIFs, memes, and highlight videos posted by users, some of whom are the very users that were banned by Twitter for posting NFL content.

The NBA understood that enforcing a strict social media policy would only do harm to its overall brand. The NBA’s biggest demographic is the millennial, who spend an average of 18 hours a day interacting with media. That 18 hours doesn’t mean fans are only spending 6 hours not using media. Rather, they are multitasking. With the rise of smartphone and tablet use, the second screen experience has been coined. Referring to a user interacting with a device to supplement another device being consumed, it’s very applicable to sports.

In the Wired story, David Levy, the president of Turner, which owns TNT and commanages NBA.com, spoke on the NBA’s allowance of shared video content when other sports leagues don’t. “Adam Silver realized early on that people would tape things off the TV set and upload it to YouTube. He understood Instagram. He understood Snapchat. He gets the fact that fans are fans, and you need to fish where the fish are.”

NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the league indeed recognized this and have embraced teams interacting with fans in innovative ways. Before the 2017 NBA Finals, the Washington Post ran a story titled, “How the NBA’s embrace of social media might help it someday surpass the NFL.” The writer, Adam Kilgore, mentioned the fact that the NBA allows video content to be shared by its fans across social media and interviewed the NBA’s Chief Marketing Officer Pam El, on how that decision was part of a targeted strategy. El said, “We recognize that our fans are very young. We know that they are very tech-savvy. We know they are all over social media. And we know that if we’re going to market to this younger fan, we need to be where they are. It’s certainly not by accident that we’re the No. 1 league across all social platforms. That is completely by design. We know that’s where those younger fans are getting their information. That’s where they’re engaging with brands they love, and the NBA is one of those brands.” Commissioner Silver added in the story, “We think that’s been very successful,” Silver said. “And I think that’s part of why the league has been so popular. Especially over the last decade. I think it’s really by embracing the tech community and social media.”

In addition to the NBA’s fans being very tech savvy, its owners are extremely technologically advanced as well. NBA owners include the former CEO at Microsoft, Steve Ballmer, a co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen, a former executive at AOL, Ted Leonsis, and Mark Cuban, who is a main investor on the television show Shark Tank, as well as founder of a few social media platforms. Policies for competition, player conduct, and social media are developed by many league stakeholders including owners, therefore having a young or technologically innovative ownership group is instrumental to developing successful policies, which is just what the NBA has done. According to Wired, almost half of the 30 NBA teams have owners with backgrounds in technology or investment. This has led to innovative technological ideas, including virtual reality. The NBA became the first professional league to livestream a game using VR, placing viewers at home directly courtside to view the amazing athleticism of the players from the best seats in the arena.

On the allowed sharing of video content, Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert commented, “It’s almost like a free commercial,” and he’s exactly right. The more content about a game created, the more likely that someone not viewing the game will become a viewer, even if only for a few minutes. The article mentions a Nielsen study commissioned by Facebook, that found that “each additional share of a Facebook post about a NFL game in the 15 minutes before it started correlated with an extra 1,000 viewers for the first minute of the broadcast.” This fact would stand to indicate that social media is a supplement to the viewing experience on TV, and not a threat. Now one day, it very well may become competition, but it seems the NFL may have jumped the gun on that initial threat with its social media policy in 2009.

So the NBA has seen success from allowing the sharing of video content by fans, but how have teams helped the effort to grow the league on social media? A study by Yuan Wang of The University of Alabama attempted to do a content analysis of teams’ Twitter use. The study separated tweets into three categories, professional, personal, or community, studying a total of 5561 tweets. While the study found that the majority (71.4%) were professional, most of those contained either hyperlinks, photo, or video. Considering that tweets with images saw 150% more retweets than those without, according to Buffer, it’s safe to say teams have strong social media strategies that entice users to engage.

The NBA is also excelling in allowing its players to voice their opinions and use their platforms for social change. Players in the NBA have long felt comfortable speaking out about injustices and social issues. NBA players speaking on social issues allow their brand to cross out of the sports sector, and into general discussion on social media.

Analysis and Observations

Like most new technologies, social media was pretty unbounded by rules in its early age. Platforms had terms and conditions, but outside of being banned there were few penalties if any for users. The initial problem that sports leagues found themselves with was how to deal with the posting and sharing of content that did not originate from an exclusive rights holder. Sports leagues have deals in place that dictate who can share their content, when, and how. This makes up a majority of league revenue, so the leagues have an understandable desire to limit the sharing of content without compensation.

What makes the problem unique is that this is exactly how social media is used. People want to share what they are doing and experiencing. If a fan of the Dallas Cowboys is watching the game and sees an amazing catch, the fan may want to share that experience with his or her followers. A simple rewind on the DVR, recording on the smartphone, and upload to Twitter, and suddenly a highlight that used to require watching the game or highlights after, is now being seen by people free of charge. This created a dilemma. Allow this posting, and you’re creating engagement and discussion organically, without effort and free of charge, but not seeing the immediate return on investment. Penalize it and potentially anger your fanbase, and limit the reach of your product.

In sports, the second screen experience gives people the ability to have conversation surrounding the sporting event with a larger community. A fan of the Washington Wizards living in New Orleans, I don’t have to watch the game surrounded by no other fans of my team, with no means for insightful conversation. Instead, I can watch on the TV and follow along on Twitter, giving my thoughts on successes and failures, sharing video to reinforce my thoughts, and commenting with other fans of the team. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other content communities allow for fans to have a larger voice, and keep the league in constant discussion.

For more  on what the NBA is doing right on social media, I interviewed Ben Mehic, a NBA and Utah Jazz writer for the Deseret News. “The teams that comprise the league understand how the viewers use Twitter,” Mehic said. “The Atlanta Hawks, for instance, became renowned for their tweets because they incorporate their fans. They use emojis, up-to-date gifs and videos. NBA teams recognize that it’s about more than just your basic 140-character tweet. NBA teams jumped on the use of rich media before other leagues did. And they know how to do it right.” In addition to using rich media, the Hawks social media team understands its target demographic very well. The content is a mix of information about the team, and comedic takes that interest casual fans. The seventh most retweeted post on the team account says, “BREAKING TRADE NEWS: …the people who run team accounts don’t make trades, so don’t @ us with every rumor.” It’s a funny post, that most NBA fans can relate to, and helps the Hawks twitter stick out from the other 90 or so team accounts across professional sports.

Just this weekend players across the league (and the NFL) voiced their opinions on President Donald Trump’s comments saying that NFL players who kneel during the national anthem should be fired, while using derogatory language. One day later, Trump targeted possibly the second most popular player in the NBA, Stephen Curry, saying that he would be rescinding the Golden State Warriors invitation to visit the White House after Curry indicated he most likely would vote for the team not to attend. One of Curry’s biggest rivals, LeBron James responded saying, “U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain’t going! So therefore ain’t no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!” The words were certainly heated and pretty unprecedented when considering they were directed at the sitting U.S. president. This showed exactly what NPR argued in its article, that NBA players are more confident to speak out on political issues. While many athletes voiced their opinion on the various comments to reporters, it seemed that NBA players were more likely to use their social media accounts to speak directly to the president. By the end of the weekend James’ tweet had more than 643,000 retweets and 1.4 million likes.

James is and has been widely considered the best basketball player in the world since at least 2012. As of September 23rd, 2017, he has 38.4 million followers on Twitter. He uses his posts to update fans on offseason workouts, his personal life, professional sports teams he follows, his community service work, and of course social issues. In 2015, Sports Illustrated released its Sports Illustrated Social 100, which compiled the top accounts recommended as must follows, top team accounts, and other lists. The must follows list for Twitter had 30 athletes, seven of whom were NBA players. Looking at Twitter Counter, which keeps a list of the most followed Twitter accounts, LeBron ranks 26th, the top ranking for a US athlete, and the only one in the top 100. In fact, the next closest U.S. athlete is Steph Curry’s teammate, Kevin Durant in position 103, at just under 17 million. Meanwhile, the NBA’s official twitter account is 52nd, the top ranking of the major professional sports, with two million more followers than the NFL. The fact that one single player can have 50% more followers than the league account also goes to show that the NBA is a player’s league, where superstars can shine brighter. For comparison, the most followed player in the NFL is Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who has 4.31 million followers on Twitter. There are 14 current or former NBA players with more followers than Wilson.

Another way the NBA has championed a strong following on social media is to allow fans to vote for players to start in the NBA All-Star Game, the league’s annual showcase of its top talent. The NBA introduced ways to vote via social media in 2012 by tweeting the player’s name and #NBABallot. In the last five years, the way to submit the ballot has changed (2015-16 saw the addition of retweets as votes), but the message was clear: The NBA wanted to engage users early and often on social media. The introduction of retweets as votes, added the ability of influencer marketing to affect the All-Star voting system. Celebrities like Justin Bieber sent out votes via Twitter for a player, which led to hundreds of thousands of retweets. Influencer marketing is a growing trend, and the NBA has been able to capitalize on this with both its players and other celebrities. Now fans of Bieber, who has the second most followed Twitter account at 101 million, were being exposed to the NBA, possibly for the first time.

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Before the 2017 NBA Finals, commissioner Silver held his annual press conference to discuss the successes of the season, and issues the competition committee would investigate over the summer. One of the first points he discussed was how the NBA’s acceptance of digital and social media would allow the league to reach approximately 1 billion people over the seven game series between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. While one, or even seven television events would not be able to reach that number, Silver included other methods of interaction, including reading player and media tweets or viewing highlights on Facebook or Twitter. “So, roughly one out of seven people on this planet will have a direct connection to these Finals,” Silver said. “Which is pretty spectacular.”

When looking at engagement, this is the way the future of television is trending. It’s not significant to simply mention the number of viewers. People are following on social just as much, if not more. Compared to the NFL, the NBA is not as worried about losing traditional viewers because they believe that these users on social media can work as brand influencers with that free sharing of content that Dan Gilbert mentioned. Also, the league makes money in many other ways, including jersey sales, and advertising deals, all of which would seem to increase in revenue as players grow their presence on social media. Secondly, the league recently signed a nine-year, $24 billion television deal with ESPN and TNT. This money, as league revenue, is distributed directly to team owners, and contributes to deciding the NBA’s salary cap, which dictates player salaries. It’s been clear that the league is growing in popularity, and it’s impossible to ignore the role social media has had. Meanwhile, players are motivated to grow their social media presence as having more followers likely means being able to sign a more lucrative endorsement deal.

Since USA Basketball allowed the 1992 National Basketball team to use NBA players, basketball has spread like wildfire across the world. According to the NBA, the 2016-17 NBA season had 113 international players, from 41 different countries, the most international players ever, leading to an increase in global marketability. Look at the small country of Georgia where Warriors center Zaza Pachulia is from. As of 2016, Georgia had a population of 3.7 million, less than 28 states in the U.S. Yet, their NBA fandom was evident by the fact that Pachulia was almost voted into the starting lineup of the NBA All-Star Game in 2016 and 2017. He was so close to being voted as an undeserving starter in 2016 that the NBA changed its process for selecting the starters in the game. Instead of it being decided entirely by fan vote, the format was changed to 50% fan vote, 25% player vote, and 25% media vote in 2017.

The NBA has capitalized on its global appeal through various social media efforts, including the live streaming of a game between the Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors on Facebook in India. This was a calculated decision, as the Warriors are the most popular team in the league, and the Kings have the first and only owner of Indian descent, Vivek Ranadivé. The digital world will look vastly different in eight years when the current TV deal expires. By the NBA having a partnership with Facebook, it opens up the possibility that all National TV games will be streamed on Facebook in the next TV deal, especially with executives concerned with the rise in young individuals not purchasing cable.

Discussion

From this case, I learned about the history of the NFL and NBA’s social media policies, and more detail into why the NBA is heralded for the social media community it has fostered, and its overall advancement in technology. This case study applies directly to the course for a few reasons. Firstly, I was able to study and review some of the most popular people and companies on Twitter, one of the leading social media platforms. Secondly, when looking at social media, we learned by looking at Solis’ Conversation Prism that companies must think strategically about social media use. It appears that the NBA has succeeded in this effort.

Recommendations and Conclusions

My only recommendation is for the NBA to continue to be innovative in exploring new digital technologies. The audience that engages most with social media and new technology is in the 18-29 age demographic, and who the NBA will need to be its most supportive fans in the future. Looking specifically at social media, the NBA has planted a seed in the youngest demographic, increasing the possibility that the youth will continue to follow the NBA as they grow, increasing fandom exponentially. The league has already shown with its use of live streaming and VR that when new technologies emerge it will lead the way as a technologically advanced professional sports league. For now, the NBA is by far the most popular professional league on social media, mainly because of its allowance of users to share video content from gameplay. Considering how much time people spend on social media everyday, it’s reasonable to expect the NBA to become the most popular professional sport in the U.S. If that day does come, it will be hard to correlate the change to social media as there are too many variables. The NFL has other problems that it is facing, notably the concussion issue, public perception, and a lack of stars.

References

Collins, Terry (2017). NBA to stream game on Facebook Live in India. CNET. Retrieved from cnet.com

Hull, M. Sports Leagues’ New Social Media Policies: Enforcement under Copyright Law and State Law. Colum. J.L. & Arts, 34, 457-490

Kilgore, Adam (2017). How the NBA’s embrace of social media might help it someday surpass the NFL. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com

Martin, Michael (2017). NBA Players More Confident To Speak Out On Political Issues Than Other Sport Leagues. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.com

McClusky, Mark (2016). Techies are Trying to Turn the NBA Into the World’s Biggest Sports League. Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com

NBA Staff (2016). NBA rosters feature record 113 international players from 41 countries and territories. National Basketball Association. Retrieved from http://www.nba.com

Rahn, Matt (2012). The First NBA Team on Twitter — Interview with Kings Andrew Nicholson. Sport Techie. Retrieved from sporttechie.com

Twitter Counter Staff (2017). Top 100 Most Followed Users on Twitter. Twitter Counter. Retrieved from http://www.twittercounter.com

SI Staff (2015). Sports Illustrated Social 100. Sports Illustrated. Retrieved from http://www.si.com

Wang, Y. & and Zhou, S. (2015. How Do Sports Organizations Use Social Media to Build    Relationships? A Content Analysis of NBA Clubs’ Twitter Use. International Journal of Sport Communication, 8, 133-148.

The full case study with bibliography and references can be found here.

 

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