Jan 22, 2020 - Sports

The NBA's engagement problem

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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The average NBA team is now worth $2.1 billion

Reproduced from Forbes; Chart: Axios Visuals

The average NBA franchise is now valued at $2.12 billion, per Forbes — a figure that has grown 476% in the past decade.

Why it matters: Thanks to the NBA's international growth and the $24 billion TV deal it signed with ESPN and Turner in 2014, team values have grown at a much faster rate than the other three major U.S. sports leagues.

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"Heartbroken" LeBron James joins other stars in honoring Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant on court for the Los Angeles Lakers during the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest, part of 2010 NBA All-Star Weekend at American Airlines Center in Dallas. Photo: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

LeBron James said Monday he's "heartbroken" as he joined other stars in paying tribute to NBA legend Kobe Bryant, who was killed in a California helicopter crash alongside his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, a day earlier.

Details: James said at the start of his Instagram post, "I’m not ready but here I go. Man I sitting here trying to write something for this post but every time I try I begin crying again just thinking about you, niece Gigi and the friendship/bond/brotherhood we had! I literally just heard your voice Sunday morning before I left Philly to head back to LA. Didn't think for one bit in a million years that would be the last conversation we’d have."

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NBA postpones Lakers vs. Clippers game following Bryant family deaths

Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images.

The NBA announced Monday that it will postpone Tuesday's game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers out of respect for the loss of Gianna and Kobe Bryant.

The big picture: Bryant hosted a 20-year career with the Lakers. The Staples Center, where the Lakers play and where the game is set to be hosted, has become a mourning ground for his followers following the tragic helicopter crash Sunday that took his and his daughter Gianna's life, in addition to seven others. The game will be rescheduled at a later date.

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