Jan 22, 2020 - Sports

The NBA's engagement problem

Illustration of a cell phonne
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The NBA has embraced social media as a way to drive fan engagement, and it's working. Problem is, "engagement" isn't "viewership," and what plays well on social media doesn't necessarily make fans want to tune in to the games.

Driving the news: In the two months since we were first made aware of the NBA's declining TV ratings, all kinds of theories have been posed to explain the dip.

  • The most logical explanation is that traditional viewership is no longer a good proxy for measuring a league's popularity because TV ratings don't account for cord-cutters or the large swath of younger fans who follow the NBA mostly through YouTube, Twitter, etc.
  • In other words, interest in the NBA may be high even with sagging TV ratings if engagement on other platforms makes up for it.

Yes, but: With Reddit activity also on the decline, it seems something much larger could be at play here.

Between the lines: What happens on social media — which tends to be more off-court drama than, say, on-court analysis — is now setting the conversation for everything else, seeping into TV broadcasts and driving day-to-day coverage.

  • "The resulting supply chain is one that promotes the NBA as a place of peripheral drama, but not a place where winning ultimately matters much," writes The Athletic's Ethan Strauss (subscription).
  • "It used to be said that Twitter made the NBA a year-round sport. It now seems like Twitter has made it a year-round celebrity watch."

By the numbers: Earlier this month, one Twitter user analyzed posts from ESPN and Bleacher Report accounts to determine what they were promoting.

  • Khris Middleton and Rudy Gobert (both potential All-Stars) had been the subject of zero posts regarding their play, while one of the most frequently promoted players was Carmelo Anthony, whose journey back to the NBA was basically a months-long reality show.

The big picture: An entire generation has grown up watching highlights instead of the actual games, with many of them following players' exploits on Instagram more closely than their accomplishments on the court.

  • Convincing those fans to watch more games has become the NBA's central challenge, as it tries to balance online engagement, which can't be directly monetized, with actual viewership, which is the league's financial lifeblood.
  • Note: ESPN and Turner are paying $24 billion over nine years for broadcast rights.

The bottom line: This isn't just an NBA problem. As fandom continues to shift from "full games and box scores" toward "highlights and IG Stories," the relationship between leagues, media partners and social platforms is bound to evolve.

  • In the meantime, look for leagues to continue experimenting with digital partners on new ways to reach and monetize fans, while investing in new sectors like sports betting as they prepare for the future of sports consumption.

Go deeper: NBA ratings are down, but fans are still engaged

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