The NBA Could Ride Their Social Media Dominance to the Top

In the summer of 2015, a string of emojis tweeted out by various NBA players sparked the rise of NBA Twitter as a staple of the league’s cultural footprint.  Free agent Deandre Jordan had agreed to a deal with the Dallas Mavericks.  However, he soon became uncertain about his decision to leave the Los Angeles Clippers.  As the marquee center flip-flopped, players across the league reacted to the intriguing situation with emojis on Twitter, causing an explosion in engagement with the NBA Twitter community.  Thousands of users offered their takes on the Deandre Jordan drama with emojis of their own, sparking a string of interactions between NBA fans and their favorite players that has since become a daily occurrence.

Previously just a small group of writers, insiders, and super-fans, the online community soon became a hub for NBA related news, highlights, jokes, and analyses.  Now, the NBA is the most tweeted about sports league, as there were 100 million NBA-related tweets heading into last year’s finals and over 76 million during last year’s offseason.  From live-commenting games to dissecting pre-game wardrobes, NBA twitter has become a tight-knit community active year-round.  Twitter’s head of sports league partnerships TJ Adeshola reflects, “NBA Twitter just has this really special connectivity to it that doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

The NBA doesn’t just dominate Twitter.  A new study by Sports Business Journal concluded that the NBA ranks first among all leagues globally in social media engagement.  The NBA has more than 82 million followers across its official league social media accounts globally and that number jumps to 1.2 billion when including team and player feeds.  Over 14.7 million of those followers were added in the last twelve months, representing a 21 percent year-over-year increase.  Of the four major American sports, Reddit’s NBA message board is now the only one with more than a million subscribers.  The NBA’s rule over social media is no coincidence.  According to the NBA’s chief marketing officer Pam El, “it’s certainly not by accident that [the NBA is] the number one league across all social platforms.  That is completely by design.  We know that’s where those younger fans are getting their information.”

Young sports fans are consuming sports content through social media and streaming services far more than fans in previous generations.  According to a recent Mckinsey report, 56 percent of Millennial sports fans report using streaming website and apps compared to just 29 percent of Generation X fans.  Millennials also check scores and game clips on social media far more often than Generation X fans (60 percent versus 40 percent).  Just last year, YouTube saw an 80 percent increase in time spent watching sports clips on its site, and highlight-focused social media accounts such as Bleacher Report’s “House of Highlights” have millions of followers.  With highlights and game summaries at their fingertips, there’s no need for young fans to sit through entire games and commercial breaks.

The McKinsey report also concluded that Millennial fans are watching fewer and shorter sessions of live sports on TV as a result, which has led to declining ratings for almost all major professional sports. ­­The NFL suffered a 9.7 percent dip in ratings during the 2017 regular season, marking a 17 percent drop since 2015.  NHL games also saw a 20 percent decline in their national broadcast on NBC.  MLB ratings stagnated on average, and even soccer, one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S, struggled to grow their audience in 2017.

As consumption of sports through social media has grown, leagues have had to decide how to protect their content, particularly the highlights and video that networks paid millions of dollars to broadcast exclusively.  While the NFL and MLB have gone after sites and social media users who posted video without permission, the NBA took the opposite approach and has allowed the free distribution of its content.  Commissioner Adam Silver considers online videos to be a form of marketing, likening them to “snacks” that might stimulate fans’ consumption of league content.  Silver recently told Strategy+Business magazine, “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.”

Adam Silver was right.  Though sports viewership in general has gone down, the league’s average TV viewers increased by 17 percent during the 2016-2017 compared to the previous year according to Nielsen Holdings.  Growth is particularly strong among Millennials, as viewership of NBA TV programming rose 21 percent among the 18-34 age group.  The NBA continues to leverage social media to increase engagement, as commissioner Silver notes, “we look at social media data every day to see how many people are following the league, our teams, and individual players. And we have various measures for whether the commentary is positive or negative.”  The NBA has only a dozen staffers devoted to managing social media activities. However, their operations are intertwined with sales, marketing, and other core league departments as engaging fans online has become an integral strategy.

Despite recent success, the NBA still has a long way to go before overtaking the incumbent American sports powerhouse. Although the NFL’s viewership has steadily declined over the past three years, they still have ten times the number of viewers on average as the NBA for their prime-time games.  The NFL also has significant more revenue compared to the NBA.  In the 2017-2018 season, the NFL made $14 billion in total revenue, nearly double the NBA’s $7.4 billion.  Overall popularity lies with the NFL too, as a Gallup poll released last year found that 37 percent of Americans consider football to be their favorite sport compared to just 11 percent who responded basketball.

Still, the trend in sports media consumption towards social media and streaming bodes well for the NBA’s prospects of someday overtaking the NFL.  As young viewers stray from conventional live TV viewership, the future of rights deals appears to be in jeopardy, and the NBA is positioned better than any other league to adjust to subscription-based streaming services. Commissioner Silver envisions that one day streaming services will bid for contracts the way television services do now.  Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban agrees, stating that the competition between subscription services will be “greater than the competition between networks on TV ever was” and that “…our revenue could grow significantly if the landscape then is similar to today.”  Traditional media companies like CBS, Fox, ESPN, NBC and Turner currently have the rights to the big four U.S. sports league locked up until for multi-year deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars each.  Beginning in 2021, however, the rights go up for bidding again and tech companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google are poised to enter the competition.  The NBA has already entered partnership with Hulu and YouTube and experimented with streaming games on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The McKinsey study on Millennial sports media consumption also concluded that the distribution of online highlights is the gateway to obtaining subscriptions.  Fans who consume 30 minutes per day of sports highlights were shown to be three times as likely to subscribe to sports streaming services compared to the average fan.  Since the NBA already dominates the online sports content space, the league is set up well for a lucrative streaming deal once its TV rights contract expires in 2025.  If Cuban’s vision comes to fruition, it is not too far-fetched to say that the NBA could soon overtake the NFL in terms of both viewership and revenue, especially as Millennial audiences age and Generation X viewers phase out.