How the NBA’s Progressivism Is Helping It Thrive

It’s long been America's most forward-thinking sports league—both in terms of its politics and its marketing strategy.

USA Today Sports

In their second consecutive battle for the NBA championship, the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers have alternately triumphed and debased themselves; the finals has been punctuated in equal measures by improbable three-pointers and dirty fouls. But regardless of the outcome of “The Rematch,” there is one clear victor of the 2015-2016 NBA season: Basketball Twitter.

In February, the NBA became the first professional sports league to pass one billion social-media likes and followers across all league, team, and player accounts. Basketball Twitter has emerged as an entity unto itself— now tracks the number of NBA-related tweets on its homepage; the number, around 75 million, ticks higher and higher, and shows no sign of slowing.

Nor does the business of the NBA generally. This year, the league broke its all-time attendance record: Nearly 22 million fans streamed into stadiums throughout the regular season. TV viewership rose by 19 percent, the number of NBA League Pass subscriptions was 10 percent higher than last year, and the league’s website saw visits rise by 27 percent. Following the 2014-2015 season, in which according to Forbes, the NBA shattered its pre-existing revenue benchmark at $5.2 billion, the money continues to flood in. This, in large part, is due to TV contracts that now stretch further into the future and valuable new sponsorship deals. These deals have reportedly greatly increased in value due to the league’s revolutionary social-media strategy, which has cause its reach and popularity to boom.

The NBA’s strategy is revolutionizing the way that sports are marketed and consumed, and it’s doing so on a platform where everyone—fans, teams, players, the league—has a voice. On Twitter, the personalities of players and teams run right alongside their athletic feats; the medium has drawn a wide swath of people into a conversation from which they might have once felt excluded.

Historically, the NBA has long trailed behind the NFL in both popularity and profitability (the NFL is currently valued at $13 billion; the NBA at $5.2 billion).  “In some ways, the NBA is like Burger King trying to compete with McDonald’s,” says Michael Lewis, a marketing professor at Emory University. “As the market leader, the NFL is going to be very controlled, very traditional.” But pro basketball’s underdog status (relatively speaking) has allowed it space to experiment with how it connects to its audience. “The NBA, as the market challenger, is going to take more chances,” says Lewis.

Over the past few decades, the NBA has succeeded in attracting a more diverse and engaged fan base that is pulling the league out of conventional modes of consumption—live games and TV broadcast—and toward digital mediums. Nowhere is that more evident than on Twitter. Writing in The New Republic, Maxwell Neely-Cohen describes how engagement with the game plays out across the platform:

Twitter has become the epicenter of basketball fandom, a beating heart and a central nervous system, a place where serious statistical analysis flows alongside highlights, jokes, exclamations, and inane trash talk from every conceivable corner of the world. The NBA Twitter ecosystem includes professional gamblers, math geniuses, journalists, front office insiders, superfans, team PR reps, massive athletic apparel brands, cable news anchors, rappers, heads of state, and the very players being discussed.

While the impact of social-media on sports’ leagues popularity is still a developing field of study, it’s undeniably a promising one. In a recent Wired article, Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, said that social media is “almost like a free commercial.” Mirroring a Facebook-commissioned Nielsen study that found that each share of a Facebook post before an NFL game correlated with 1,000 additional viewers, a student at Stanford University traced a similar link between NBA-related tweet volume and ticket sales.

For the NBA, investing in a social-media strategy is a natural move. The same ethos of diversity and progressivism that the league has long championed has positioned it to profit most organically and effectively in the digital landscape. Twitter users skew young and diverse; NBA fan demographics paint a similar picture. Pro basketball is the only sport where the percentage of fans who are black (45 percent) is larger than that of those who are white (40 percent). It also has the youngest audience by far, with 45 percent of fans under the age of 35. The gender split lags, but basketball, since the founding of the WNBA in 1996, is the only major American sport to offer women an opportunity to go pro.

“The NBA understood that diversity was a moral imperative,” says Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. “But it was the first league to understand that diversity and inclusion are also business imperatives.”

Since 1988, Lapchick has compiled race and gender “report cards” for each of the major U.S. sports leagues, assessing them on equity in hiring practices. The NBA, Lapchick says, has consistently earned the highest grades on both racial and gender inclusion; for 2015, the year of the most recent report, the NBA earned men’s pro sports’ only A+ for racial hiring practices, and a B+ for gender.

The league’s emphasis on diversity—unparalleled in men’s professional sports—originated, Lapchick says, under the league’s former commissioner, David Stern, who oversaw the creation of the WNBA and recognized that the NBA, the majority of whose players are African American, should have a management that reflected the diversity on the court. Adam Silver, who took over Stern’s role in 2014, has preserved that mentality. Almost immediately following his appointment as commissioner, Silver forced out Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers’ general manager, for his racist remarks against African Americans, sending a clear message that the NBA will not stand for intolerance.

But in many ways, the NBA is progressive only insofar as its players have pulled it in that direction. The NBA has always been a star-driven league; the teams themselves almost pale in comparison to the popular forces of their big-name players, like Michael Jordan in the 1990s and Stephen Curry today. In contrast to baseball or football, in which players’ personalities are obscured by helmets and hats and entrenched ideas of decorum, “basketball is the sport where the players’ faces and emotions are the most clear and exposed,” says sportswriter Dave Zirin, the host of the podcast The Edge of Sports.

Silver’s approach to social media actually takes into account the value-added in encouraging diversity. In a speech at Austin’s South by Southwest conference, he said,

I think we were early adopters in terms of encouraging our players on social media … it has enormous value for the league to make [players] into the multi-valued people that they are. It gives them direct access to their fans and ability to share their personal interests … Social media from our players makes our ratings higher and brand stronger.

On Twitter, players and teams, seemingly uninhibited, mingle with their supporters. “If you have a largely progressive set of fans, which the NBA does, and they see the players they watch share their politics, that’s going to be a benefit in terms of building relationships with those fans,” Lewis says.

That is not so much the case for the NFL. Professional football generally discourages players’ outspokenness; in a column for Deadspin, the former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, who was let go from the team after advocating for marriage equality, recalled his coach telling him that "There are two things you don't talk about in the NFL, politics and religion."

In many ways, the league's’ divergent attitudes are predicated on their fan bases. In contrast to NBA supporters, NFL fans trend white and conservative; their largest age bracket is 55 and older, according to Nielsen. They’re but a speck in the Twittersphere, and many would prefer that the players they watch stay out of national conversations. It’s a decidedly old-fashioned understanding of the role of professional athletes: Just play the game. But it’s an attitude that’s phasing out as sports fans age. The Washington Post recently reported that among the three biggest American sports—football, basketball, and baseball—only the NBA has kept the average age of its viewers from rising.

“There’s always been a theory,” Lewis says, “that you want to acquire customers when they’re young and their identities are still forming.” The next wave of sports fans will not just be sitting in front of a TV or in the stands, watching the game. They’ll be streaming it online; they’ll be engaging with all aspects of it through Twitter, through Snapchat, through Vine.

It’s difficult to say how Basketball Twitter will evolve in the years to come, but one thing is for sure: The NBA’s approach is good business even if, as Lewis suggests,  it doesn’t seem like a business strategy. “It feels 100 percent genuine, and that’s the best kind of marketing.”

This article is part of a week-long series of articles about the business of sports. Joe Pinsker on the future of corporate sponsorship is here. Alana Semuels on publicly-financed sports stadiums is here. Gillian White on the struggle for equal pay in U.S. soccer is here. Bourree Lam on the use of sports metaphors in business is here.