February 26, 2014

How the NBA’s Digital Strategy is Taking Over the World


The NBA’s All-Star Weekend marked the beginning of new commissioner Adam Silver’s tenure, with former commish David Stern stepping down after 30 years on the job.  Silver has been vocal in his lofty goals for the growth of the NBA, stating that he expects to “go after the NFL’s position as the most popular and profitable sports league.”

The NFL is a juggernaut and by far the most successful sports league, bringing in around $10 billion in revenue last year, compared to the NBA’s just $4 billion.  In a survey conducted last month by the Harris Poll, 35% percent of fans call the pro football their favorite sport, while just 6% say the same about the NBA.  That makes the NBA America’s fifth most popular sport, behind the MLB, college football, and auto-racing. That’s a lot of ground for the NBA to make up. However, Silver’s optimism stems from the fact that the NBA has positioned itself better than any other sports league to expand internationally and through the digital space.

The market for sports is financially saturated within the U.S. For sports leagues, most room for growth lies outside of the U.S., and the NBA — more than any other league — has excelled at engaging that international audience. The diverse league boasts 92 players from 39 countries/territories (almost a quarter of active players), and has leveraged that fact to connect with those players’ countrymen, and to grow interest overseas. The NBA’s strategy for reaching these potential fans has been to build one of the largest social media communities in the world: The NBA, it’s players, and representatives combine for more than 455 million “likes” and “followers.”

Due in large part to its commitment to social media and the digital space, the NBA has a huge lead in global expansion. Meanwhile, the NFL hasn’t been able to gain much traction in Europe, despite efforts such as its annual London regular season games, or the now-defunct NFL Europe. Unlike the NBA, it lacks the social media infrastructure and digital presence to properly cultivate its overseas fan base.  The official NBA Facebook/Twitter pages have 20.1 million likes and 9.4 Million followers – nearly double that of the NFL (9.4 Million likes, 5.9 Million followers). To encourage its community to engage in social media even further, the NBA held its first annual Social Media Awards in 2012.

The NBA has also been the leader in making its content available through YouTube.  It was the first professional sports league to have its own YouTube channel, and now has more than 5.2 million subscribers. It’s the year 2014 and the NFL still doesn’t have its own YouTube channel.

In China alone over the past three years, has had 16 billion page views and nine billion video views. Last year, the NBA’s Chinese website saw the number of page views rise by 40%, and videos by 180%.

To top it all off, this year will see the launch of the NBA’s first-ever marketing campaign geared towards international fans titled, “One Game One Love.” There will be 125 international events held in 27 countries in 2014, with two regular season games being played overseas. NBA games will also be televised in 215 countries in more than 40 languages this year, and NBA-licensed apparel will be sold in 100 countries.

The NBA’s ongoing globalization through the digital landscape has positioned the league well to build upon its rapidly-growing, engaged overseas fan base.  The former commissioner, David Stern, was quoted recently as saying, “The world, and digital, are our oysters and we will absolutely see where that takes us.”

If his protégé, Silver, continues to carry that mantle, maybe the NBA still won’t catch the NFL, but it certainly seems to be closing the gap.