The NBA has a robust social media presence with 35 million Instagram followers, 3.8 million fans on TikTok and “several exclusive” Snapchat shows, but with viewership amongst its “core audience” – 18-34 year olds – down -11% season to date and “almost -50%” since ’10, Commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged that the league, ESPN and its “partners at AT&T and WarnerMedia” have yet to figure out how to navigate the new media landscape. The task at hand is “conditioning a new generation [of fans] that 8p on Tuesday is 8p on Tuesday. Because [they ’re used to watching content on demand and the game] is perishable.” Silver believes that the NBA can “restore the demographic balance” with a “buy on the fly model” that enables fans to access the league’s most exciting games in progress.
Howie Long-Short: The NBA’s fan-friendly approach to social media (think: sharing of in-game highlights) has “helped the league gain [global] exposure and promote [its] players” – which is why MLB just announced it would allow its stars to do the same, but Wayne Sieve, EVP for Thuuz Sports, was quick to point out that “being popular doesn’t equal demand. Only a percentage of those who have measurable interest in a product will end up buying (or tuning in). Social media reaches a broad audience – many of whom are passive fans without the level of interest necessary for live game tune in or purchase.”
The predominant theory has always been that if leagues were to provide “snackable” content (i.e. highlights), that it would ultimately lead to fans consuming “meals” (i.e. complete games), but with a large portion of 18-34 demo opposed to paying for cable services (ESPN has lost 14 million household subs since ’10, TNT has lost 11 million) it’s worth wondering if the strategy needs to be revamped. Wayne doesn’t think so. He believes it is “possible to re-condition a segment of the audience – in this case millennials – to watch games in full, but you’re going to have to speak to them in a language that they understand and not just give them your grandfather’s product. In the early 2000s, fantasy sports and access to out of market games are what brought greater interest to live game viewership. Now with AR, VR, legalized sports betting and the customized broadcast elements that have made esports viewership so successful, there is an entirely new set of tools that can be used to attract the millennial fan.”
The league’s social media strategy has allowed it to capture the hearts and minds of young people (avg. age of fans 42) – only MLS has a younger fan base – but its “demand and supply aren’t meeting right now.” Silver says the key to creating that balance is to eliminate “transactional friction” (think: ability to purchase 4th quarter of game). Some believe that micropayments threaten the league’s existing media partners (the “transactional friction” referenced) – and with Disney and WarnerMedia paying the league $24 billion over 9 years, one can understand why that might be a concern – but Wayne says “micropayments are additive and offer those fans uninterested in committing to a full game with a value proposition that makes sense for them. I don’t believe they threaten linear rights holders because you’re selling two different products to two different types of fans.”
It’s possible (if not likely) that the millennial fan is actively engaged with the league on social – watching highlights and following league drama, but only interested in tuning in for the occasional 4th quarter of a close game. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to Wayne. “The point is that they care. Apathy is the death knell for a league. So, whether fans are watching the game because they care about the team, want to follow player drama, have someone on their fantasy roster, placed a bet on the game or any other reason for engagement, all that matters from the league POV is that they are engaged.”
Fan Marino: Social media is wearing on NBA players’ mental health. Commissioner Adam Silver recently said that many of the leagues players suffer from deep depression and anxiety. For all the fame and money, a jealousy amongst players (social media usage has been linked to lower self-esteem) and “pervasive feelings of loneliness” exist. To the league’s credit, they’ve taken a pro-active approach to the problem. Back in May ‘18, Dr. William Parham was hired as the NBA’s 1st Director of Health and Mental Wellness and the league and union have since introduced an independent mental wellness program for the players.
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