Let’s steal from the NBA: How a global sporting underdog became one of its leaders

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Sport is all about the underdog. Whether its Miracle on Ice, Slap Shot or the Mighty Ducks (yes, I’m Canadian) the best stories in sport aren’t great to watch because of a team’s domination. They’re great to watch because they’re stories of success against all odds.

Unfortunately, the NBA isn’t an underdog-friendly sport. The same two teams have met each other in the NBA finals for the last three years in a row. To top that off, as we enter the next round of the playoffs, the team that’s come out on top twice in that span is already odds-on favourite to win again.*

So why would anyone want to watch a sport where the results are predictable? And why would people around the world even try to watch American teams play each other?

Well, against all odds, the NBA has become one of the most popular sports leagues across the globe.

Here’s how the global sport’s underdog pulled it off.

The NBA vs. other global sports on Google Trends
(Note: Because of Google’s limited market share and inconsistent presence in China, the above includes very little Chinese data)
Y axis = Score out of 100 for the popularity of each term. A score of 100 would indicate peak popularity for the term. A score of 0 would indicate that there was not enough data for the term. (from Google Trends)

1. It started by doing an excellent job of influencer marketing

The NBA is China’s most popular professional sports league (and basketball its most popular sport). Choose your China-only metric: 68 million followers of NBA teams on social media, 2.9 billion views of NBA videos and 15.5 billion NBA related hashtag reads. (Source. Source.) It certainly helps that there are some 300 million amateur players gracing its courts too.

But how did that happen?

Basketball was first brought to China soon after it was invented in the late 1800s and various leagues have staged exhibition games in the country over the years. Yao Ming, China’s first real NBA star, certainly made an impact in terms of getting the league on the country’s radar.

But Yao retired in 2011, and he alone doesn’t explain the billions of views.

The NBA didn’t just bring the sport to China, or rely on local talent. It brought all the players and their personalities. Think of it as influencer marketing. But your influencers are superheroes.

Using personality to market something is nothing new. So instead, the NBA got to understand how the Chinese were already discovering, following and engaging with personality-driven content. Of course that was through social media. But instead of just relying on some type of loose campaign or posting messages from an official NBA account, the League did two things.

First, they struck deals with China’s core social media (like WeChat and Weibo) to carry content: highlights, stats, live games, behind the scenes and player interviews. Second, they facilitated their players’ market entry: allowing (if not encouraging) shoe deals with Chinese brands, off-season country tours and most importantly, an active social media presence.

And the strategy is working. It’s not just the best players in the league but the players with the most interesting narratives – the ones that have overcome challenges to get where they are, who had a dramatic performance in the playoffs, who dress differently, have a beard, have a funny shooting style, etc.

To illustrate, let’s take the case of Derek Rose.

Many touted Rose to be a future superstar of the NBA. He won league MVP during the 2009-2010 season. The following year, though, he suffered what many considered to be a career-ending knee injury. Further injury, emotional turmoil, bench roles, multiple trades, self-imposed exile from the league, the pressure of expectation, the real possibility of retirement: Rose is now a backup point guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

But the Chinese have been following every step of Rose’s story.

He’s got the social media followers to prove it and 70% of his global sneaker sales are to China (Source).  But perhaps most indicative of how he’s resonated in the country is his ranking by ESPN as one of the biggest names in sport.

Rose was ranked 36th in the world. That’s ahead of athletes like Venus Williams, Tom Brady, Anthony Joshua and Antoine Griezmann. ESPN slipped in this explanation ‘…last year he made a promotional tour of China for Adidas and was moved to tears by a video tribute from fans wishing him success.’ It’s that type of unscripted, genuine, emotional interaction that is helping convert fans around the world.

(As an aside, one of the areas that I love about China’s adoration of NBA heroes is the nicknames they’ve assigned to players: Dwyane Wade: Show-off II (I’m guessing Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan are probably ‘I’), Kyle Lowry: Small Tank, Giannis Antetokounmpo: Letters Man, Steph Curry: Skyfu*ker (He’s really good at shooting three-pointers), James Harden: The Big Beard (google him), Scottie Pippen: Second Best Under Heaven (he was Michael Jordan’s wingman), Kyle Anderson: Human Peristalsis (Not the fastest on the court). They know their shit.)

2. They repackaged a time-zone specific product for a global audience better than anyone else.

Following North American sport is challenging from London: 1) it’s not football (Soccer), so rarely sees any local coverage 2) it’s on at anti-social times (past midnight). Yet, my appreciation for the sport has only increased since living overseas.

The League’s used technology effectively to give traditionally hard-to-reach fans a great experience, every time. Sure, most sports have an app-based subscription service these days. What makes the NBA different, though, is how they’ve kept fans in mind while building out their technology.

To illustrate, let’s compare how the NBA has executed its app compared to the NHL (National Hockey League). On the surface it seems exactly like the NBA one – you can watch the games, pick which team’s coverage you’re getting, etc. But, there are some key differences. Let’s look at how the NHL app deals with commercial breaks.

Because the NHL can’t show adverts out of paid-for markets, it blacks out commercials. And I mean blacks out: black screen, rotating ‘NHL’ icon, no sound. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but imagine you’re watching a game that’s gone into sudden-death overtime. Just before the break, a player has hauled down an opponent. Penalty shot. As the referees set up the shot, the producers cut to commercial break. Silence. You’ve gone from peak emotional captivation to a dark, silent room.

Buzz kill.

The NBA realised this wasn’t working for fans and found an easy solution: Just cut to the in-arena cameras. Sound on. That’s all that was needed. They go further, though: There’s a no spoilers option, ensuring you avoid finding out about that buzzer beater before your screen catches up.

You can choose the commentary you get: home, away, or maybe that NBA on TNT coverage you love. Of course you can also watch it in your own language too, with many games broadcast in Spanish, Korean – or end-to-end Chinese coverage in China of course.

But the app isn’t the only way the League is using technology to improve the fan experience. Instead of ring fencing their content, they’re partnering with key stakeholders (yah, just like in China). Amazon Prime user? Watch from there. Use the Bleacher Report for your sports news? It’s integrated. They’ve even gone so far as to realise the value of the 4th quarter (the end of the game). You can buy just this quarter instead of the full game.

One of the League’s most brilliant moments has been in understanding the mobile experience. They’ve realised that what they’re doing for TV won’t work for mobile. So, rather than an app that emulates TV, they’ve gone ahead and built a mobile experience from the ground up.

It means in-arena cameras that are capturing a zoomed-in version of games (suitable for smaller screens). They’re using the fact that a mobile device is a two-way system by adding on-screen, answerable trivia questions and on-demand stats.

They’ve even partnered with a startup that’s able to create social-ready highlight clips seconds after the highlight-worthy play takes place, ready for users to post. In fact, the NBA’s whole unobstructed highlight experience is amazing. It includes exclusive behind the scenes content tailored to each social media platform. And it isn’t gated or ringfenced.

The latest evolution of the mobile viewing experience has been the addition of VR (yah, click on it, you don’t even need a headset to understand the value). What this has done is create an in-arena experience no matter where fans are. Courtside seats have suddenly become unlimited. (Which isn’t a problem for selling the seats themselves, because courtside’s about getting seen more than watching the game anyway.)

The innovation isn’t stopping with VR either. eSports is already getting rolled-out (they even recently held an NBA style draft of pro NBA 2K players) and similar social and mobile streaming initiatives are being introduced into the WNBA (Womens NBA) and the G-league (The NBA’s minor league). Add to that these developments that have just been announced:

  • Live televised all-star game draft – think pick-up basketball in the schoolyard – the two players with the most all-star fan votes get to CHOOSE THEIR TEAM amongst the other all-stars!
  • Live tweeting the refs… in game

3. The NBA isn’t afraid to use its own proprietary data to market itself either.

Instead of trying to sell predictable storylines, the league has doubled down on stats. Numbers resonate – especially in this data-driven era.

Let’s take the three pointer for instance. It turns out that mathematically, a ~35% chance (roughly the NBA 3 point average) of getting 3 points results in more points than a ~50% chance (roughly the NBA 2 point average) at 2 points. It’s pretty clear: if you take 25 two-pointers, you’re likely to get 25 points based on a 50% chance of them going in. If you take 25 three-pointers, you’ll get 26.25 points based on a 35% chance of them going in.

This has transformed the NBA.

And it has resonated with one key facet of the sports fan: Every fan wants to be the best analyst. Instead of sitting on their proprietary data, the NBA’s made huge amounts of it public. It’s made fans active members of telling the NBA story: identifying key plays, finding nuance in the sea of numbers and creating their own data-backed theories. Instead of a handful of eyes analysing the data, the NBA has tens of millions. It’s open-sourced in-game analysis allowing each fan to be a data-backed content creator. Who doesn’t want to be that fan that figures out the next league hack?

As Luke Gain aptly put in a recent post: “Leveraging proprietary data takes guts… But that’s exactly why the rewards are worth the risk. Using proprietary data transparently and honestly to help your prospects learn something – about themselves, about the market they’re in, about what the future holds – is immediately, tangibly useful in a way most content only wishes it could be.”

So what should we take away from it all?

The NBA should be confined to the backwaters of American professional sports. It has no right to be competing on the global stage. But the League’s underdog approach to global expansion has said otherwise. Think about the storyline of your favourite sports film: That scrappy underdog team on the brink of folding putting everything on the line stay alive. Through a combination of risk, taking advantage of opportunity and innovating, the team eventually realizes success. That’s the NBA story. And I think there’s a lot we can learn from their tactics:

  • Carefully executed influencer marketing can be incredibly powerful and personal.
  • Invest in technology, not for the sake of technology but for the sake of dramatically improving your customers’ experience.
  • Don’t sit on your proprietary data – build content with it – or even better, help your customers build content with it.
  • Innovation never stops, small risks for potentially huge rewards are worth it.
  • Play to your strengths – A lot happens in the 4th quarter – focus on it.
  • Capitalize on your unfair advantages: More highlights than most sports? Get them to your customers. (Youtube search stat)
  • Go to where your audience is – China? Cater to them; Mobile? Optimize for that, Twitter? Strike a deal.
  • Don’t be afraid to give to get: content tends to have a snowball effect – the more you give, the bigger your audience.
  • Don’t just market to your customers – get them involved. Get them engaged.
  • Love your product – and make everything you build in the service of it.
  • Don’t just know your customers, never stop learning from them.

Over a billion people around the world watched an NBA game last year. Revenue grew 25% year on year. Interest is soaring (see Google Trends graph below). The NBA is no longer the underdog of the global sporting world. And it’s used a bunch of intelligent but simple marketing moves to get there.

*It comes down to variables, sample sizes and predictability. The smaller the sample sizes (points, games, minutes) you have across multiple variables (players) the less predictable a sport is (the more it’s under-dog friendly). In the NBA, you have the same 5 players on the court for the bulk of a 48 minute game across 82 games a season scoring most of the team’s 100+ points per game. Read: Big sample sizes, few variables, very predictable, little chance for under-dogs.  (There are books written on this stuff, so I’ve simplified this concept quite a bit here, but you can dive way deeper here.)

Other posts in the ‘Let’s Steal From…’ Series:

‘Good artists copy; great artists steal‘. Why not be your own Picasso?

The Simpsons – The masters of storytelling, character, humour… and stealing. 

Seventeenth Century Explorers – And you thought marketers had a rough time convincing their audience.

Iceland air – How emphasising experience can make the middle of nowhere the destination.

The New York Times – You could do worse than stealing from the very best.

The MarTech Supergraphic – You too can build your own content powerhouse. Maybe.

The Democratic Mid-Term campaigns – Whatever you think about her politics, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez sure is doing marketing right.

Follow The Frog – Making people feel bad is not the only way to raise money for charity.

Paths of Flight – Soothing plane videos from GE Aviation.

The Greatest Infographic Ever – From 1869. See it and weep.

Epic Split – Jean-Claude van Damme teams up with Volvo Trucks and they both come out of it very well.

Great First Lines of Novels – Incisive content from the likes of Orwell, Salinger and Garcia Marquez.

Rand Fishkin and Moz’s Whiteboard Fridays – Only one of the most successful and longest-running B2B content franchises ever made.

Airbnb City Guides – Crowdsourcing your way to content greatness.

TED Talks – SO much to steal here…

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Very nice article !

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