NBA finds ways to stay in the spotlight
The NBA never sleeps, or so it seems.
The league has stayed in the sports spotlight that began with the Finals, traveled through the draft and was followed by an immediate frenzy of free agency. Now, the NBA rolls into one of America’s hottest sports cities with its Las Vegas Summer League. It’s become an increasingly noisy offseason with no shortage of compelling stories and content.
Consider that on June 30, just after MLB All-Star lineups were announced, the NBA kicked off its frenetic free agency period that generated more than 3.8 million tweets about the league, the third biggest day for NBA conversation this year behind only Games 5 and 6 of this year’s Finals.
The interest is expected to only build this summer as new stars such as New Orleans Pelican and No. 1 draft pick Zion Williamson kicks off his NBA career this month at the MGM Resorts Summer League in Vegas.
“This activity enables teams to stay relevant and do more business during the offseason,” said Brett Yormark, CEO of Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, owner of the Brooklyn Nets, which landed superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving as free agents, creating massive buzz around the team.
“We were on the front and back pages of all the New York newspapers,” Yormark said. “That was never the case years ago.”
The league is coming off a year that saw a dip in the key metric of viewership in the regular season and playoffs.
But now comes the start of the Summer League and an opportunity to garner more attention. From July 5-15, all 30 NBA teams — along with a Chinese and a Croatian national team — will play in the 11-day, 83-game showcase. The schedule provides fans the opportunity to see the league’s top rookies (Hello, Zion!), and enough content for ESPN and NBA TV to draw viewers during a typically sleepy July.
“For us, it is taking the moment of all the events and building on that excitement as we go into a new chapter,” said Kelly Flatow, NBA senior vice president of global events. “Summer League is a perfect opportunity as we introduce our rookies to our fans and maximize that excitement and deliver compelling content.”
Last year, all 30 teams played in the Las Vegas Summer League for the first time, setting an attendance record of 139,972 fans for the games played at the Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion on the University of Nevada Las Vegas campus. Last year was also the most-watched Summer League in the 15-year history of the league with ESPN and NBA TV combining for 30 million hours viewed, according to the league. All of this for games featuring mostly rookies and young players, many of whom won’t make NBA regular-season rosters.
League executives expect to at least match or surpass those metrics this year. This year, the first day of the Summer League on July 5 featured a sold-out game between the league’s top draft pick in Williamson and the Pelicans against Williamson’s former Duke teammate and this year’s No. 3 draft pick, RJ Barrett, of the New York Knicks.
Doug White, ESPN senior director of programming, has worked on the Summer League since 2003. “The NBA is now truly a year-round sport,” he said. “In 2003, interest ended with the draft. Today, it’s carried through free agency and Summer League.”
The growth and interest around what was once seen as a little more than a player developmental tool also has grown into a major asset for team and league executives.
“These offseason events, their television coverage and the media surrounding them, particularly social media, give us as a team the opportunity to extend our selling season as compared to the past,” said Alex Martins, CEO of the Orlando Magic. “Keeping the NBA in the forefront for the majority of the calendar year gives us and our sales team current storylines to discuss with potential clients, as opposed to waiting for training camp and preseason to spur a top-of-mind discussion as had occurred in the past.”
The Summer League also has grown with events beyond the court as sponsors and media partners ramp up activity around the tournament. The Strip has developed into a showcase for basketball for almost two weeks.
Title partner MGM hosted a Fan Village located at The Park from July 5-6 featuring art installations, interactive experiences, NBA legend and talent appearances, and giveaways. Budweiser created Budweiser Legends Lounge in Thomas & Mack Center that, for $200 per day, offers fans a premium experience in a club area similar to what an NBA team would offer in its own arena during a regular-season game.
“Vegas Summer League also provides a great hospitality option for season-ticket holders and incentive trips,” Yormark said. “Coaches and GMs are more accessible and willing to engage with fans and customers, helping to sell and renew business. Young players in Summer League are more recognizable than ever before.”
In addition, new league sponsor AT&T is hosting its “AT&T Innovation Exchange” on Wednesday at Mandalay Bay. “It will be a dialogue with both AT&T executives and NBA personalities talking about innovations today and moving forward,” Flatow said.
The league also is building development and educational aspects into the week. For the first time, it held an NBA Coaches Summit on July 6-7, consisting of panels led by current and former NBA head coaches discussing the skill-sets and attributes needed to be an NBA head coach.
It’s only after the Summer League, which could feature up to 10 games a day, that the league begins to slow down. Until then, the focus is on keeping the NBA relevant all year long.
Staff writer John Ourand contributed to this report.