Technology is our friend: Feature: What any digital content business can learn from the NBA's media strategy
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July 8, 2012

Feature: What any digital content business can learn from the NBA's media strategy

The National Basketball Association NBA is a sports governing body, comparable to the NFL (American Football), FIFA, UEFA and DFL (Football / Soccer) or the WTA (Tennis) etc.: Although this is a rather special business and organizational structure, I believe that anyone who deals with digital content, be it portals, TV stations, sports clubs, digital newspapers or even consumer product companies can learn a lot from the NBA’s successful digital media strategy. What are the key factors of their strategy and how can they be applied to other business situations? Following the NBA from a private and professional angle at the same time, I found six cornerstones that may inspire anyone's way of dealing with digital content.

1. Supply and demand
When it was announced that Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks would come to Berlin’s O2 World in October to play locals Alba Berlin in an exhibition, the tickets, although significantly more expensive than with regular Alba games, sold out within an hour. That, of course, did not happen because of the superior Basketball that the audience expected, but because this may be one of the last chances to see Dirk Nowitzki play in Germany. The supply shortage was so big over the years that demand just exploded. This is an “old” (or better “analog”) economic mechanism that obstructs many digital media strategies, because in some areas, it now works the other way round: The more supply there is, the higher the demand for more. If we look at the NBA, their core product is LIVE basketball. Anything that happened yesterday (or some hours ago) is not worthless, but worth less. By offering yesterday’s highlights anywhere for free, the NBA increases the demand for live content dramatically. The NBA’s own Youtube channel has close to 900 million video views. On, they generated over 2.5 billion views in the 2010/2011 season alone. Does this mean that consumers are happy with the amount of basketball they get to see for free in the web? No. At the same time, the TV ratings of 2011 have been the highest for decades. The best example of how the NBA treats their game content are the so-called “mini-movies”: During the finals - the most valuable live content they have - they publish yesterday’s highlights in a super professional mini-movie (that is even sponsored as a format, so there is a kind of income already) for free to build up interest and tension for tomorrow’s game – live on TV. High supply = high demand.

2. Radical distribution of free content
Once the NBA understood that free highlight content actually helps TV ratings and any other important metric (from license rights for video games to merchandising and ticket sales), it was no rocket science to decide to be present on any possible channel. Additionally to huge presences (in different languages) on Facebook and Twitter and a highly active Youtube channel, the NBA is available on Hulu and any significant network from Instagram to Tumblr. 
The NBA on Tumblr:
You can access their own TV product, NBA TV and the according Game Time application, over iOS, Android, Windows Phone, on Xbox, Roku, Boxee, Google TV and even over Panasonic Viera Connect. If high supply means high demand for more, your have to: meet your customers where they are.

3. Direct connections with fans
As the NBA proves that meeting fans on any platform raises interest in their products, the whole league uses social media to establish connections with fans. Teams and players are actively working with their fans on Facebook and Twitter (over half of the roughly 400 players are on Twitter). In 2011, the NBA had 117 million social media connections, counting in team and player accounts. In 2012, this number added up to 278 million. Of course, this is not a unique user audience, but still – even if it’s “only” 100 million unique people, this is a massive reach to generate interest for NBA products – such as NBA TV. Selling their own TV product, especially in international markets, might be one of the core strategic moves the NBA has established. Someday in the future, even live sports will not be broadcasted in a linear, analog TV program. You may rely on any partner that will then have direct connections to consumers to sell pay per view, or per month, or per season to consumers, but you will always have to count in a commission to these partners. They will have to be able to a) adress, b) invoice and c) service a huge amount of people, and social media, newsletters, subscriptions and CRM are there to start securing the NBA's ability to distribute their own content – paid – in future. Even if they will never do it by themselves, it will surely give them a better position in negotiations if they could. Build databases filled with people who love your content. 

4. Connecting Internet and TV
Being able to sell your own live content over the web while you can still give away TV broadcasting rights to the highest bidders must have been a negotiations masterpiece. While the MLB (Baseball) will sell their own content over a similar app, but block out games of your local teams (you should get on linear TV to watch them), the NBA actually managed to give the consumer every choice. And it works out since the TV ratings are improving from season to season. That is partly because the NBA strictly sells access (except for a few exhibition games, there is no advertising-based or freemium model) as opposed to TNT and other stations that offer coverage for free; the NBA also does a great job in using its social media reach to generate “tune in” – make people watch the games live (on whichever channel they choose to). The official NBA account often sends out more than 10, 15 tweets during a single game. They offer a "game locator app" on Facebook that translates the game schedule to your own time zone and sends out Facebook notifications not to miss a game on television. All these activities are reminders to tune in. The internet can have an impact on TV ratings - not with marketing homepages and banner campaigns, but with realtime coverage and notifications.

5. Social Media is a second screen per se
As common as the misunderstanding that supply and demand have to work the same in the analog and the digital world is the misconception of social media stealing time from other forms of media like watching TV or listening to music. Not only modern timeline apps like Spotify prove this wrong – also measurable activities like “tweets per second” etc. during games show that there is not necessarily a demand for dedicated and sophisticated second screen apps – social media will do the job just as good or even better. 
The Finals Pulse (powered by Sprint)
The NBA offers “Social Spotlight” (where tweets and posts of all NBA related accounts are aggregated) or the “Finals pulse” (where players and their mentions in social networks are ranked), but this is just a proof that people watch sports and communicate about it online at the same time. “If they [the audience] see something on both their TV and their mobile phone, it will increase their overall recall and connection to whatever the content is." [source] 

6. Social media is best authentic and behind the scenes
Although they use twitter as a tune-in tool and Facebook to distribute their own videos etc., the NBA understood that they need both highly polished, super-professional content as well as the simple iPhone photo that puts any viewer in the courtside seat. The “overall recall and connection” mentioned above is even stronger and deeper when a fan gets the impression to be really close to the athletes and protagonists. While German sports television keeps reading out selected Tweets on linear TV, the NBA goes the other way round: they take selected scenes, captured in video or photo, and distribute those over the web, accompanying the “one angle” that is offered in linear, one-to-all-TV with an additional perspective. And even when it comes to generate “tune in” into an upcoming television coverage of a live game, the simple reminder “game starts in 35 minutes” has proven to be less powerful than a courtside image of players warming up. In social media, it is more about the closeness to something (events, incidents, persons, their feelings) than about the pure quality of text, pictures or video.

Summary: Business Value
The whole strategy seems so easy and logical that one has to explicitly mention its real beauty: 
It pleases the audience. 
What if the NBA would have decided not to give content away for free, no top 10 highlight dunks from yesterday, no game summary of a playoff match, and would have had a deal with Youtube to take down any illegal upload? The live game content would have been more - or less - desirous. With the digital logic of supply and demand, both would have been possible. But it is definately certain that the NBA as an organization would have had a much smaller reach. They would only be able to directly address a much smaller group of people. They would have less customer touch points. They would have had less impact on TV ratings, sell less of their paid content offers, have less visitors on their website, less video formats to put advertising in etc. etc. Sponsors or advertising partners, broadcasting partners, merchandising and ticket sales - any of the big sources of revenue for the NBA benefits from pleasing the audience. Of course, this is way to easy as a rule of thumb. The NBA digital media strategy will not necessarily be appropriate to serve as a blueprint for any content strategy of any random company, but I am pretty sure that with a closer look on how they treat their digital content, there is an inspiration to be found for everyone in the digital media business.

[Most significant sources for this article: ESPN in April 2011Mashable in June 2011, Fast Company in June 2011, The Wrap in Feb 2012, NewsOK in June 2012, Jeff Garcia in June 2012, Readwriteweb on Baseball, July 2012]