An inside look at how the NBA became a social-media juggernaut

An inside look at how the NBA became a social-media juggernaut

In 2021, “NBA” was the No. 1 trending Google search in the United States, beating out “Squid Game,” “Mega Millions” and “stimulus check” among other top searches. “NBA” also fared well globally, ranking as Google’s No. 4 trending search worldwide.

Kevin Esteves, the NBA’s associate vice president of digital strategy and analytics, did a double take when Google released this data a few weeks ago.

“I read it a few times just to make sure I understood what they were capturing and measuring,” Esteves told in a phone interview. “It’s an incredible stat. In a year like 2021 — with all of the news and trending searches that would’ve been in contention for the No. 1 spot — for the NBA to occupy that top spot, I think it’s just a testament to the health of the brand and how exciting the league has been over the last few years. It’s an incredible brand-health metric for us, but I think it also speaks to how the NBA is more than just a basketball league; it kind of infiltrates the conversation across culture, music, fashion and social justice.”

The NBA has always had an excellent online presence, but 2021 was perhaps the league’s most impressive year to date.

Last year, the NBA was the most-viewed and most-engaged pro-sports-league account on social media, driving 24 billion views and 2.3 billion engagements across all platforms. Also, the NBA added 18 million followers across Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and Facebook combined last year — the most of any U.S. pro sports league.

“What’s really been our guiding philosophy throughout is we’ve tried to be a first-mover on all of these platforms, and in many cases, we were the first sports-league account on the platform,” Esteves explained. “Then, it’s about optimizing content for the platform that we’re on — not just spraying the same piece of content across all of our platforms, but really optimizing for each platform, nurturing that fan base and giving them exactly what they want. That’s sort of been key in our recipe for success.”

In addition to growing its following on the larger platforms like Instagram and Twitter, the NBA also had a number of successful live activations on Twitch and TikTok among others. Even the way the league embraced Clubhouse during the height of its popularity — with regularly scheduled Watch Parties — is indicative of this philosophy.

“I think a lot of brands can be hesitant around new platforms as they’re emerging because they aren’t sure if the ROI is there, or they’re not sure exactly how it ladders up to their overall company objective,” Esteves said. “When you think about social media when it first started, a lot of brands were in the business of driving people back to their website or other offerings, whereas I think we’ve always had the directive from our executives to optimize for the platform we’re on and nurture engagement there.

“At first, it was a very big marketing platform for us, but now, social drives just about every business objective that we have. But I don’t think we could have achieved that if we were thinking that our first post on each platform had to drive 10 of our business objectives. We had to nurture engagement on those platforms to then be able to capitalize in the long-term. I think we benefited from that approach. Globally, I think you’re starting to see more and more sports leagues embrace a similar approach, being on multiple platforms and [creating specific] content that they make available on those platforms to engage fans and ultimately increase the reach of the sport.”

The NBA currently has the most followers of any pro-sports-league account on Instagram (63.1 million), Twitter (35.9 million), YouTube (17.7 million) and TikTok (14.2 million). In comparison, the NFL has just 22.7 million Instagram followers, 28.3 million Twitter followers, 8.7 million YouTube subscribers and 7.4 million TikTok followers.

A big part of Esteves’ job is trying to turn those followers into regular viewers. He describes this as “a pivotal challenge and opportunity.”

“We believe that social [media] is a driver of awareness and reach, and that it can complement and increase linear viewership,” Esteves said. “We know that there are such avid communities, whether it’s the #NBATwitter community or the communities that we have on YouTube, Reddit, you name it. They are among the most vibrant social communities on each platform, and we believe that it’s a complementary offering. It’s long been our strategy to drive awareness through social.

"For a game like Klay Thompson’s return, we had a live social producer on hand to capture Klay’s arrival, his warm-up routine, him coming out of the locker room and just all of that context. For all of our biggest nationally televised games, we’re making it appointment-style viewing. We know that fans on social are inundated with content. You see the trends on a platform like TikTok, where seemingly anyone can go viral now with content that they just captured on their phone.

“There’s so much content saturation out there right now, so you really have to break through the noise, and we’ve found that the best way to do that is to be authentic and provide access that nobody else can. Before tip-off of Klay’s return, we had a video of Klay running right up to the stanchion and he jumps into the camera. There’s no way you can get closer than that! And we’ve always felt that is important.

"Something that [Commissioner] Adam Silver always says is, ‘Ninety-nine percent of our fans never get to attend a game live.’ So how do we use social to bring the game courtside and make them feel like they’re actually there? We feel like that’s a critical bridge between social and TV tune-in, creating those authentic relationships and providing the context for why this is such a big game or matchup. We use social to do that storytelling.”

Having a live social producer on hand for Thompson’s return paid off, as the NBA’s Instagram generated 103 million views —  the most-viewed regular-season day in the account’s history. Klay-specific content generated more than 110 million views across the NBA’s socials, making Thompson’s return the most-viewed regular-season moment ever. Video of Thompson’s pregame introduction received 22.3 million views, which is the NBA’s second-most-viewed Instagram video of all-time.

It translated to linear viewership too. On NBA TV, the game averaged 844,000 viewers, making it the league's most-viewed regular-season game since 2016. Locally, NBC Sports Bay Area had a 12.7 household rating, the network's highest-rated regular-season game since 2016.

The NBA is terrific at creating these moments that get everyone talking. During the 2021 NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta, the league’s Instagram account generated more than 139 million views — the most of any account on the platform that day. The NBA’s IG also racked up the most views of any account when Stephen Curry broke the NBA’s all-time three-point record, generating 63 million views in 24 hours.

And thanks to the super active and passionate community on #NBATwitter, it’s not uncommon to see multiple players and teams trending on Twitter whenever something notable happens in the NBA. Several years ago, I asked Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey about the rise of #NBATwitter and how it became one of the most-engaged communities on the platform.

“I think the first reason it’s become so strong is the league’s acceptance of it. And not just acceptance, but usage of it,” Dorsey told me. “There’s a very open mindset to technologies like Twitter and that’s helped immensely. I also think the pace of Twitter matches the pace of the NBA and basketball in general. We [focused on] very brief moments and it’s fast-paced and there’s a lot going on, and you find a lot of the same dynamics within basketball and an appreciation for those things within the fan base.

"We were fortunate to get a lot of the players on the service [early] and also the commentators — a lot of the smart commentators... We have some of the most amazing fans on #NBATwitter too... I think it’s a good companion to the event and to what you’re watching. It also has that feeling of making the world smaller. We’re all watching this game at once; we all saw the same thing and here’s how we all feel about it — whether we’re outraged or we’re excited, we’re [part] of the crowd.”

Esteves agrees with Dorsey.

“When it comes to #NBATwitter, we’ve leaned in, of course. Our game is high-paced, volatile, real-time and has all of those ‘did-you-just-see-that’ moments that are kind of perfect fodder for a platform like Twitter. I think we’ve benefited from the product on the court. The NBA is an extremely exciting product on the court with many rising talents," Dorsey said.

"The other day, Ja Morant had his freakish block in transition, and that’s just fuel for Twitter and the conversation that’s occurring there. In many ways, it’s also a credit to the media, who are such a valuable part of that ecosystem and conversation, and to our players, who not only produce on the court but have been very invested. Shaq was among the first people with a Twitter account, period. Having our players invested in the platform helped. We’ve benefited from that marriage, that partnership over the years, and our game has grown as a result."

If you’re a basketball fan, it’s almost impossible to avoid #NBATwitter these days. Even if you aren’t on the platform, you’re bound to hear about various tweets and the drama that unfolds there. When DeAndre Jordan flip-flopped on his free-agency decision to join the Dallas Mavericks and re-signed with the Los Angeles Clippers, that saga played out on #NBATwitter. Bryan Colangelo lost his job as general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers because some #NBATwitter sleuths discovered his burner account. Nearly every free-agency signing, trade and draft pick is reported first on #NBATwitter. It has become an integral part of the NBA landscape. It’s also wildly entertaining.

“My favorite account — and one that I think makes #NBATwitter so special — is Draymond Green’s mother, @BabersGreen," Dorsey told me several years ago. “She has found all the other NBA moms on Twitter and she trash-talks them during games! She also trash-talks her own son during games! Watching a game with her tweeting about what’s going on with Draymond or with other moms is just entertaining. The basketball game is amazing in itself, but to see her comment on it just makes it funny.”

The NBA’s YouTube channel is also a huge point of pride. The channel generated 1.94 billion views in 2021, which was the most-viewed year in the channel’s 16-year history.

“These staggering numbers on YouTube are among the [metrics] we’re most proud of because, as I like to say from the data side, this single-year record viewership has been years in the making,” Esteves explained. “The NBA has been on YouTube since 2005, and the optimizations that are required to kind of perfect your algorithmic traffic are so nuanced; it comes down to thumbnails and headlines and captions and the length of the video and the pace of the video. We’re constantly tweaking and optimizing those things, and one thing that we’ve seen is that as you further optimize, you get this domino effect where one successful video fuels the performance of the next video and the next video and so on. So, seeing these numbers peak in 2021 is a testament to a lot of the optimizations that we’ve made over the course of several years.”

This was something that Esteves pointed out several times: the NBA’s success in 2021 was the culmination of several years of hard work.

“I sit on our Digital Content Strategy and Analytics team and we sit hand in hand with the content-publishing team, and we created that feedback and optimization loop over several years and now we’re seeing the dividends of all that work,” Esteves said. “Also, we’re trying to increase data fluency throughout the entire company. We don’t want all of the answers to sit in one group that sends out an email or report saying ‘X, Y and Z.’ We want more people throughout the organization to understand the data and be able to analyze it themselves; I think that has also been part of our success.”

Esteves joined the NBA in 2012, so not only has he witnessed the league’s tremendous growth across various platforms, he’s also seen how the digital landscape has changed over the last decade.

“It’s been an incredible transformation,” he said. “I started at the NBA out of school as a project employee on our Social Content team. When I first started, on a lot of these platforms, it was rather intuitive what content you published on each because they were all so different. Twitter was kind of the lifeblood of everything going on with news and commentary, and it was very tech specific. YouTube was where all videos existed and it was kind of the searchable domain of all video. Facebook was more for friends and family and conversations. Instagram started as a photo-only platform.

"From a content-strategy perspective, it was rather intuitive, understanding what content we put on each platform. But now, all of the platforms have evolved so much, and they have replicated a lot of the same features — from stories to videos to live-streams to audio-only formats. Now, it’s a lot more nuanced in terms of trying to understand where the content is going to work best, and that’s where the data becomes so important. We’re pulling in data from each of these platforms and really getting granular about trying to understand what performs best on each platform.

“I think part of what has made us so successful is being open to the data and leaning in to the data, and understanding what’s performing well versus what’s not performing well. Sometimes, it’s hard to admit the things that aren’t working, but we’ve been very transparent and honest with ourselves, and we hold ourselves accountable to make sure we’re optimizing on each of these platforms. Having that approach is another ingredient to our success and how we’ve been able to continue growing.”

This data includes interesting details about the NBA’s demographics. For example, the NBA’s Facebook, Instagram and TikTok accounts have more than 24 million combined followers from the Philippines — the most of any country outside of the United States.

“One of the things that makes the NBA so unique is its global reach, and we see that show up time and time again in the demographics,” Esteves said. “The fan support we have in the Philippines, I think, is among the most amazing things I’ve witnessed from the data side for the demographics of the NBA. For that country to represent such a significant portion of the consumption we have on a person-to-person basis, they just love the NBA; they love the stories and the players. Our content performs exceptionally well there.

"We see support from countries all over the world — in Europe, Australia, Africa and so on — but the Philippines is an example of something that really stood out to me. I think that ties back to a lot of the globalization that the NBA has done, with some of its global games being held in Manila and other locations outside of the U.S. That’s been critical and we’ve seen that show up in the numbers."

Utilizing these platforms, the NBA has gone from connecting to its biggest local supporters to reaching an audience that spans the entire world.

"Being based in New York, sometimes you have that U.S.-centric bias when you’re looking at stuff, but once you see the data, it opens up your mind like, ‘Wow, this content is being consumed in real time across so many different territories and countries across the globe.’”

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