By Bryan Crawford
In the U.S., baseball is often referred to as the “National pastime.” The NFL’s popularity is based on its intense physicality and gladiator nature of those who put their gear on and take the field on Sundays.
But from a digital marketing perspective, both leagues—although they have altered their stances somewhat—have been rather archaic and self-serving in the way they’ve allowed their content to be distributed across the Web and social media.
A cursory search of YouTube or any other video sharing site for MLB or NFL highlights delivers far fewer current results than a similar search of NBA content. Both Major League Baseball and the National Football League host video on their branded websites and mobile applications that they charge fans to access and both leagues aggressively work to take down content that has been posted on third-party sites.
“In this day and age, every company needs to be a media company, and they have to figure out what assets they have that are unique to keep their customers and fans engaged” Greg Isaacs, NFL vice president of digital media, said in a September interview with Digiday.
However, for as much sense as this makes from a business perspective in terms of monetizing content, it’s also very limiting. Forcing football and baseball fans to pay for highlights or videos of their favorite athletes seems counterintuitive, especially considering that the NBA virtually gives this kind of content away.
The league, of course, draws the line with full games being posted online, but in terms of being “fan-friendly” in the dissemination of highlights, this is one of the major reasons the NBA is so popular with people all over the world.
This is not to suggest that professional football and baseball don’t also garner a lot of fan interest, but it far less organic than the NBA, a league that attracts new fans on what seems like a daily basis.
Most people trace the growth of the NBA’s popularity back to when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird first came into the league in the early 1980s.
But it was the Dream Team and the 1992 Olympics where the popularity of professional basketball in the United States exploded. Michael Jordan, at that time, was not only the face of the Chicago Bulls, but also the entire NBA. The way he played the game, with an above the rim, high-flying style was exciting to watch and fans wanted to be a part of what ultimately ended up being a revolution.
Certainly much of this rise in popularity had a lot to do with the fact that he was the best player on the planet. But it was also rooted in the way the league, Nike, Gatorade, Chevrolet and a host of other brands marketed him as well.
His Air Jordan commercials, at the time, were immensely popular and shot Jordan sneaker sales through the roof and they remain popular to this day. The “Like Mike” jingle is one that a lot of people can still probably sing word for word today and a large part of the reason why Gatorade is arguably the most popular sports drink on the market.
All of these brands made sure to put Michael Jordan front and center in every newspaper, magazine publication and home with a TV. This strategy was not only wildly successful, but impressive for one main reason: Michael Jordan became a global icon before the Internet was a commercial entity. In addition, the NBA profited from an immense boost in popularity. People all over the world knew about the Chicago Bulls because of Jordan and this, in turn, introduced them to other teams and players who were also immensely talented. It was pretty much a perfect storm.
Once the impact of the World Wide Web was felt in the public sphere and improvements were made to make it faster and more powerful—such as being able to give users the ability to stream video content—the NBA, which already had the “Michael Jordan blueprint” perfected when it came to advertising and promotion, began to understand that the Internet was a tool it could use to organically spread its reach by selling the individual greatness of its players to basketball fans everywhere.
It was nothing short of pure genius and it set a marketing blueprint that would prove successful for the league for years to come.
On a global scale and in terms of popularity, it’s probably unfair to compare basketball to soccer or baseball.
But make no mistake, the game is extraordinarily popular with people all over the world and the NBA is the biggest reason why. Certainly, this is due in large part to the popularity of individual players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Derrick Rose, but this isn’t something that happened by accident.
For the better part of 20 years, the league has systematically been positioning itself as a global game by leveraging the power of technology, a move that has worked brilliantly.
Compared to athletes in other leagues, like MLB and the NFL, those who compete in the NBA are arguably some of the most recognizable. It helps that players don’t have any obstructive headgear and rosters are limited to no more than 15 people at a time, so it’s easy for fans to be more familiar. But more importantly, the NBA’s top marketing strategy is not to sell its teams, but the guys wearing the uniforms.
LeBron James is a perfect example of this.
On July 8, 2010, the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar had his free-agency announcement televised in a one hour special, “The Decision.” According to Nielsen, at the time when James stated that he was taking his “talents to South Beach,” meaning that he had chosen to play for the Miami Heat, 13.1 million people were tuned in at that very moment.
“The Decision” drew an average of 9.95 million viewers and was the most-watched cable television program on that day (though, arguably, there wasn’t much else on to compete with it that night). Not only was it a rousing success, but it also garnered more NBA fan interest the following season and beyond as both James and the Heat were lightening rods for praise and criticism. It was something that people could not stop talking about. But as they say, there is no such thing as bad publicity.
While basketball is a team sport, the NBA is all about promoting the individuality of its marquee athletes. Whereas basketball fans at one point in time felt a loyalty to teams—think the Lakers and Celtics rivalry that ruled the 80s—that attention his since shifted over to individual players. During James’ time in Miami, those who cheered for him while he was in Cleveland had no issue dumping (or burning) their Cavs gear for Heat merchandise bearing his name and likeness.
Now that he has returned to the place where his career first started, those same fans have abandoned their Miami-branded apparel and dusted off their old Cavaliers equipment. The marketing strategy that was perfected with Michael Jordan has been duplicated time and again as new blood enters the NBA and the league promotes these players while simultaneously selling the product on the floor.
Today, LeBron James hocks everything from Nike sneakers to Kia automobiles and people buy these items simply because they are associated with him. From a digital standpoint, video ads are promoted online and on social media and freely shared as a way to create more brand awareness, not only for the products themselves, but the players as well.
The NBA certainly benefits from this in many ways, as the league is more popular than it has ever been and this growth is likely to continue on the upswing. The genius of David Stern, who stepped down as league commissioner in February after a 20-year run, is that he had the foresight to understand the power of technology and digital media. He also capitalized on the fact that free publicity can also turn a profit.
The NFL and MLB, while popular in their own rights, are far behind the NBA when it comes to digital marketing. Both leagues charge fans for access to content that their basketball counterpart gives away for free.
It’s easy to find any number of popular video ads online featuring the likenesses of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose and others, but nearly impossible to do so with superstar athletes in other sports. The same goes for individual highlights
When it comes to digital marketing, the NBA has been and will continue to be at the head of the pack compared to the other professional sports leagues in the U.S. This is also the reason why professional basketball will continue to grow in popularity around the world and the money that television networks are pumping into the NBA will only get higher.
The league just signed a $24 billion dollar deal TV deal with ESPN and Turner that will kick in for the 2016-17 season and run through the 2024-25 season. All of this because the league’s leadership understands that free publicity can, and actually does, turn a profit.
This is why the NBA is unmatched when it comes to digital marketing and why the NFL and MLB have a lot of catching up to do.
This story originally appeared in the December print issue of Out of Bounds Magazine.