Commentary

How The NBA Built A Winning Digital Media Strategy

There’s a strange phenomenon in sports in which the larger the ball, the younger the audience. That’s one explanation why the NBA is killing it right now.

Ratings for this year’s fourth installment of the Cleveland Cavaliers-Golden State Warriors matchup were strongfor ABC. Ratings for the regular season were also the NBA’s highest in four years, which is a stark contrast to the past year’s slumping NFL ratings (excluding the Super Bowl).

Rather than the size of the ball though, I’d give the credit to the NBA itself, which has done a great job revolutionizing the ways sports are viewed and marketed, giving players, teams, the league, and fans a voice in the action. Here are my three reasons why the NBA has had such a strong year:

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1. The NBA is global and diverse

Basketball is a uniquely American game, invented in Springfield, Mass., but it has become a global sport. The cosmopolitan nature of the sport is reflected in the makeup of the league. In 2017, the NBA announced that 108 international players from a record 42 countries and territories were entering the league this season, and also signed a $225 million dealwith Rakuten to have a distribution partner in Japan for all live games.

2. The NBA embraces social media, community, mobile and streaming

The NBA is player-driven rather than team-driven. Stars like Michael Jordan defined the 1990s and Stephen Curry and LeBron James define the 2010s. The league has capitalized on such personalities by offering them unfettered social media access. The NBA was an early adopter in embracing social media for players, giving them the ability to share their personal interests and highlight the league's overall diversity in the process.

Some of the most famous examples in recent years include LeBron James’ “Decision”(about which city/team to go to), Steph Curry’s daughter Riley Curry's takeover of his press conference, and the summer 2015 emoji war in which the league traded emojis with players.  

3. The NBA operates with transparency from top down.

While the NFL has struggled with player protests, the NBA’s philosophy has been to let players speak their minds. In 2014, NBA players wore "I can't breathe" shirts (which referenced the killing of Eric Garner) during pregame warm-ups to support the Black Lives Matter movement. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony spoke out about racial tensions in the United States during the 2016 Espys. NBA stars have a reputation for being more vocal on social issues than any other group of professional athletes.

Why the NBA has come out ahead

Many marketers strive to find a platform that communicates purpose, creates unique experiences, and builds long-term loyalty towards their brand. The NBA has done a virtuoso job managing its brand. In a very negative media environment, the NBA presents a vision that’s optimistic, realistic and inclusive. That’s something we can all root for.

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