When it comes to social media, the NBA’s got game.
An Instagram post showing Steph Curry celebrating his championship with family draws more than 738,000 likes on Instagram. A video on Facebook with a dunk performance gets more than 100 million views. Another video on Facebook featuring Michael Jordan’s postseason highlights gets 23 million views.
Such results are why the NBA is ranked first among leagues globally in a new study exclusive to SportsBusiness Journal that examined social media engagement in sports.
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• How the research was conducted, surprises you may find
|A video of Michael Jordan's playoff highlights was one of the many buzzworthy posts by the NBA.
The study showed the NBA having a total global following of more than 82 million followers across its official league social media extensions. It added 14.7 million social media followers in the 12 months that Hookit study measured, which was a 21 percent year-over-year increase. Popular destinations on each of the established American social media platforms have been supplemented by global efforts on China’s Sina Weibo and Tencent, among others.
The NBA has long been seen as an industry thought leader with regard to social media, as it has frequently been a first-mover on many social platforms and the league won the inaugural award for Best in Sports Social Media at last year’s Sports Business Awards. When also including NBA team and player feeds, the league’s social media reach actually surpasses 1.2 billion fans and followers.
But the league doesn’t really have a separate social media operation. It devotes about a dozen staffers to manage activities on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. But rather than siloing those social media operations, they are intertwined with the rest of the NBA’s digital media functions, which in turn are closely aligned with sales, marketing and other core NBA departments.
“These units are all now working in lockstep with the same basic goal of serving the right content to the right platform at the right time,” said Melissa Brenner, NBA senior vice president of digital media. “There’s a much clearer focus now to what we’re doing on social, and nothing is really done in isolation.”
First Look podcast, with social media discussion beginning at the 11:30 mark:
Of course, the NBA has enjoyed some key advantages since the earliest days of social media: an active and engaged player base, a small playing surface easily allowing for close-in video views, and a decidedly liberal and global mindset from former Commissioner David Stern continuing to successor Adam Silver to prioritize social media, innovate, and take risks.
Smaller and less established sports properties, too, have adopted similar strategies with regard to social media. The World Surf League, which had the most-watched video post (surfing dolphins) last year of any property and overall engagement levels surprisingly surpassing the English Premier League, generates more than 800 hours of live content per year.
Without the benefit of a traditional TV deal, the property has aggressively pursued efforts such as live streaming competitions on Facebook, developing drone-based content for Snapchat, and even crowdsourcing the development of a surfboard over social media.
“We have had to be a digital-first sport from day one,” said Tim Greenberg, World Surf League chief community officer. Greenberg’s role last year shifted from senior vice president of digital to his current following the creation of a community department focused on real-time marketing, with social media the fundamental piece of that. A team of three dedicated to the World Surf League’s social media operations is only a quarter of the size of the NBA’s.
“A lot of this, obviously, is the nature of our sport and that we don’t necessarily know day-to-day whether we’re going to be able to run, if conditions are favorable, and what our start times are going to be. So it’s always a challenge to manage tune-in. But our core audience is living on these social platforms,” he said.
The World Surf League enjoys a fan base with an average age of 32, far younger than most other established properties. Greenberg acknowledges there is an accessibility to the surfing content that others can’t necessarily claim.
“You don’t need to really know surfing to appreciate our content,” he said. “There’s a fundamental connection with the ocean that people have, and we definitely lean into that.”
Real Madrid, the world’s most-followed team on social media and the top-ranked team in the Hookit research, bluntly believes the club is in fact a content creation factory.
“We’re a football club; we dedicate our activity to football, but in reality what we are is a content company,” Rafael de los Santos, Real Madrid’s global head of digital, told Digiday. “The big challenge for us is to become content producers.”
Technology has helped properties take their content around the world, increasing appeal and influence. The NBA began to work with Israel-based WSC Sports in 2015 to develop auto-generated video content that allows the league to create customized, country-specific player content more efficiently than devoting staff time to the effort.
“Content for players like LeBron [James] and Steph [Curry] are going to be popular anywhere. But in a place like Australia, content about Australian players is typically going to be just as popular, if not more so, and the same goes for many of our other territories,” Brenner said.