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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

Go deeper

Kendall Baker, author of Sports
Aug 6, 2020 - Sports

6 teams are vying for the last playoff spot in the NBA's Western Conference

The Suns have won all three seeding games, capped off by Devin Booker's game-winner Tuesday night. Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The race for eighth in the NBA's Western Conference is heating up, and with the playoffs just 11 days away, we're all but guaranteed to see the first-ever postseason play-in game.

How it works: A play-in game will only occur if the eighth and ninth seeds are within four games of each other when the regular season concludes.

Tech scrambles to derail inauguration threats

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Tech companies are sharing more information with law enforcement in a frantic effort to prevent violence around the inauguration, after the government was caught flat-footed by the Capitol siege.

Between the lines: Tech knows it will be held accountable for any further violence that turns out to have been planned online if it doesn't act to stop it.

Dave Lawler, author of World
2 hours ago - World

Uganda's election: Museveni declared winner, Wine claims fraud

Wine rejected the official results of the election. Photo: Sumy Sadruni/AFP via Getty

Yoweri Museveni was declared the winner of a sixth presidential term on Saturday, with official results giving him 59% to 35% for Bobi Wine, the singer-turned-opposition leader.

Why it matters: This announcement was predictable, as the election was neither free nor fair and Museveni had no intention of surrendering power after 35 years. But Wine — who posed a strong challenged to Museveni, particularly in urban areas, and was beaten and arrested during the campaign — has said he will present evidence of fraud. The big question is whether he will mobilize mass resistance in the streets.