The NBA Is Letting Its Stars Shine on and off the Court, Making the League’s Games Must-See TV

Standing behind its outspoken players attracts a younger audience

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid are the centerpieces of their teams' marketing strategies. Golden State stood behind Steph Curry when he publicly rebuked President Donald Trump. Sources: Getty Images
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From LeBron James to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to Stephen Curry, the level of play and talent that exists in today’s National Basketball Association makes the product as captivating as it’s ever been. The games are intense, exciting, fast-paced, and the on-court rivalries—between teams and even individual players—are fierce. The NBA is separating itself from its peers as the league stands behind its outspoken players and attracts a younger audience.

And that excitement also is showing up in the ratings.

Per Nielsen data, the combined average TV viewership for NBA national broadcasts on TNT, ESPN, ABC and NBA TV is 1.4 million viewers, which is up 17 percent from the 2016-2017 regular season and the most-watched start to a season since 2012-2013. That’s also the biggest ratings growth in North American pro sports, and outpaces the majority of linear television, which has largely seen ratings decline. The growth is particularly strong among the younger demographics that TV advertisers crave, including adults 18-34 and 18-49, unlike Major League Baseball, which remains most popular among Baby Boomers.

“This is a very tough, coveted demographic we’re talking about here, and a tough one to reach in a linear way,” said Turner Sports ad sales evp Jon Diament. “NBA fans do not watch traditional TV. They’re often male, young and millennial. … They typically don’t have the traditional viewing patterns that you’ll find in the TV landscape. Then, there’s the viewership offline, on social and on digital, whether it’s the live games or anything around the league. That’s exploding as well.”

To steal a line from the 1990s NBC marketing department, it’s apparent that the NBA has become “must-see TV.”

“There's a long tradition in the NBA going back to Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell to people who were passionate and engaged on important social issues."

In addition to the exciting action on the hardwood, a case can be made that TV ratings growth for the NBA on both a national and regional level has to do with how the league stands behind its stars and markets them.

“The nuances of the NBA game allow for a better platform to market the league,” said former Warriors CMO Chip Bowers, who recently left the organization for MLB’s Miami Marlins. “You only have 10 players on the court at a time … with no helmet or hat on. They become recognizable.”

That contrasts with the NFL, where there are 53 players on the roster and they’re covered in protective gear. “It’s a little harder for the players to brand themselves as individuals, as a result,” Bowers added.

NBA superstars use social media to establish their brand, and also as a soapbox to discuss controversial societal issues. The league actually encourages this and it generates little controversy, unlike the NFL, which has seen a great deal of political blowback.

“There’s a long tradition in the NBA going back to Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell to people who were passionate and engaged on important social issues,” said NBA CMO Pam El as she reaffirmed the league’s support of its players. “It’s a culture that’s been passed down from player to player.”

In addition to the league office, fans and team executives support players for speaking their truth.

Golden State’s only request is that players do some research to ensure they’re speaking from a position of knowledge, as opposed to doing it in a reactive manner. “Our players see the value in that,” said Bowers. “They want to be taken seriously. I don’t think they look at social media as a platform just to be heard, but as a platform where they can actually create some change.”

NBA teams are making a strong effort to market their young stars both to the local community and globally in a variety of ways, ingraining them as part of culture.

“The NBA and its players are very effective at reaching fans through social media, said Paul Hardart, marketing professor at the NYU Stern School of Business. “They’ve done a great job with connecting with broader cultural trends, whether it’s with music—Drake and Jay-Z citing the game in their songs—or fashion, to the point where the NBA has become its own fashion brand to some degree.”

"[Players] want to be taken seriously. I don’t think they look at social media as a platform just to be heard, but as a platform where they can actually create some change."
Chip Bowers, former Golden State Warriors CMO

The Milwaukee Bucks, currently celebrating their 50th anniversary, are highlighting their young Greek superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo as a connection between the franchise’s history and its future. The team is tying “Giannis to the biggest legends in Bucks history to bring a conclusion to our ‘Own the Future’ campaign, and set a frame of reference for our championship expectations,” Bucks CMO Dustin Godsey said.

The Philadelphia 76ers feature the dynamic duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, who are in their early 20s and are easily relatable to fans.

Philadelphia 76ers CMO Katie O’Reilly said they’ve been showcased in game promotions, special edition jerseys and season ticket campaigns. “Joel has become a larger-than-life ambassador for this team, city and league,” she said.

With up-and-coming, camera-friendly stars like Antetokounmpo, Embiid and Simmons, in addition to the household names, the NBA is firing on all cylinders right now. “The league is culturally relevant, globally, and competition on the floor has been amazing,” said Diament. “You have a lot of powerhouse teams with a lot of superstars on them. There have been a lot of stories, a lot of trades, a lot of drama, all of which are keeping fans interested and engaged.”

This story first appeared in the Feb. 19, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@ajkatztv A.J. Katz is the senior editor of Adweek's TVNewser.