Sports Leagues Were Already All In on TikTok. Then the Coronavirus Hit

Now it's more important than ever

compilation images from sports TikToks
Leagues and athletes are relying on social media more than ever to connect with fans and using TikTok to make the best of a bad situation.
Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Sources: TikTok

Key insights:

“And at guard … in his rookie season … from Murray State University … Ja Morant!” 

Sporting his full Memphis Grizzlies getup, the NBA’s second overall draft pick stormed out of his living room, swatted some imaginary high fives to imaginary teammates and hopped around to energize an imaginary crowd. The makeshift public address announcer stands just off-camera, narrating Morant’s first video on TikTok.

Morant, like so many professional athletes, is just making the best of a bad situation. The NBA season, along with that of every major sports league, is postponed indefinitely due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. 

With their jobs on hold, athletes are relying on social media to connect with fans. In addition to Morant, TikTok’s new entrants in this time of social isolation include Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, Philadelphia 76ers guard Matisse Thybulle and Chelsea F.C. midfielder Christian Pulisic, joining a growing list of prominent athletes like LeBron James, Tom Brady and JuJu Smith-Schuster who have been on the platform for some time now. 

Long before the pandemic, the major American sports leagues started cultivating their presence on TikTok, the emerging social video app owned by the Chinese firm ByteDance. Now, many of those leagues, along with their teams and athletes, are rerouting their social media strategies and rethinking TikTok during an outbreak that promises to render their sports dormant for the foreseeable future. As critic Amanda Hess wrote in The New York Times, “the visual grammar of TikTok was developed by teenagers messing around alone in their childhood bedrooms,” so during the coronavirus crisis, the platform feels “oddly unchanged.”

During this time of physical isolation for players and fans, athletes, their jobs rendered impossible by an invisible plague, are acting a lot like those teenagers, shedding nervous energy and, for now, connecting with fans from the safety of their own homes. The leagues, in turn, are playing the role of stage parents, keeping their wards busy during an inexplicably weird moment in time.

The NBA season was cancelled after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, just two days after he mocked the league’s precautions by touching every reporter’s microphone and recorder at the end of a press conference. Just a few days ago, Gobert recorded a video urging fans to wash their hands and avoid unnecessary contact with others. “I wish I would’ve taken this thing more seriously, and I hope everyone else is going to do so because we can do it together,” Gobert said. 

That too, you can find on TikTok. 

@nba

A message from Magic Johnson

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A new platform for sports

Without sports on television, sports leagues are just brands, and athletes are just social media influencers.

Despite the reliance on their actual sports for highlights and news, the leagues are fairly well prepared to handle their cadres of stay-at-home athletes. In interviews with Adweek in the weeks before the outbreak shut down much of the United States, executives at most of the major sports leagues emphasized the importance of getting away from highlights on social media and focusing on human-interest stories. 

“The human aspects of human stories are the ones that always perform best,” said Sean Dennison, social media director of the NHL. “And TikTok really lends itself well to that.” The NHL has a go-to philosophy for social media internally known as “humans over highlights,” favoring funny, interesting or heartwarming stories that resonate with everyone—even people who don’t watch or care about hockey. Some of the league’s most popular TikToks involve players giving pucks to fans. While more highlight-focused content often gets hundreds of thousands of views, the puck exchanges consistently rake in millions.

@nhl

Nikolaj Ehlers making a smart trade! ##nhl ##hockey ##sports ##fyp ##foryou ##foryoupage @nhljets

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The NFL calls its version of this strategy “helmets off.” The league organizes its social media content, according to Ian Trombetta, svp of social and influencer marketing for the NFL, around four verticals: video games, music, fitness and fashion.

“Those actually mirror our players and their interests as well,” Trombetta said.

And the lifestyle push helps leagues expand their reach beyond their established fan base. The NFL brought Charli D’Amelio, the second most popular creator on TikTok with 41 million followers, and her TikTok-famous family to the Super Bowl to create content around the game, making videos with halftime show performer Jennifer Lopez as well as Jackson Mahomes, brother of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and a popular presence on TikTok. 

“For us, it was great because here we are reaching a more casual audience, a younger audience and building that interest in the Super Bowl and the halftime show,” Trombetta said. “It just really worked for everyone involved.”

@jlo

Soooo much fun doing the ##JLoSuperBowlChallenge with @charlidamelio!!!!! See you all tomorrow at ##SuperBowlLIV ????❤️

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With 10.1 million followers, the NBA isn’t just the most followed sports league on TikTok—it’s the most followed brand on the platform. The NBA TikTok is full of highlights but also relies heavily on in-arena entertainment that fans tuning into a live broadcast might not see.

“Our mascot content performs best,” said Bob Carney, svp, social and digital content at the NBA. “We even created the hashtag #MascotMonday to highlight mascot content on a regular basis. The hashtag is home to some of our more light-hearted content such as pregame dances, funny bloopers and many other moments that usually can only be seen in-arena.” (Chicago Bulls mascot Benny the Bull alone has 2.2 million TikTok followers.)

(Adweek’s interview with Major League Baseball, which was scheduled for what turned out to be the day after the baseball season was postponed, never came to fruition. After the MLB season was delayed, the league declined to comment for this piece.) 

TikTok can be a tough place for brands to break through, but the two most followed leagues, the NBA and the NFL, which has 3 million followers, have established formal partnerships with TikTok. By contrast, MLB and the NHL, neither of which has a formal partnership with TikTok, have 1.2 million and 686,000 followers, respectively. eMarketer estimates TikTok has more than 30 million monthly active users in the United States after seeing explosive growth in 2019. 

While TikTok does not provide brands with many audience metrics, the leagues know they are reaching a very young audience—TikTok reported that 60% of its U.S. users are between 16 and 24—and a larger female audience. The NBA, NHL and NFL told Adweek their respective audiences were 60%, 59% and 55% female. Indeed, the sports leagues have been trying to court women for years via marketing and social awareness programs like football players wearing pink cleats for Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October and MLB using pink bats and gloves for Mother’s Day (though some of these have come under fire for “pinkwashing”).

While Professional Bull Riders operates on a much smaller scale than the major professional leagues, it too has seen similar levels of female engagement on TikTok (59% of its 397,000 followers). “In the sports landscape, that is unheard of on any single platform across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube or Snap,” said Mitch Ladner, director of social media for Endeavor, which owns PBR. “So for us, that’s a huge win.”

@pbr

What score would you give Brady Sims? ##pbr ##pbrbull ##jobtips ##BestThingSince

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For brands, the incentives on TikTok are clear: Videos can go viral, and you can reach a much younger and more diverse audience than many other social platforms. TikTok’s For You tab is a highly centralized algorithmic feed and, compared with other platforms, who users follow seems to matter less. For the leagues, that means their human-interest content might reach people with no particular affinity for their sport. 

When the NHL posted a video of Winnipeg Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers giving a puck to a fan in exchange for a pack of Tic Tacs, it skyrocketed to 34 million views and 4.8 million likes. In the 36 hours after the video was posted, the NHL gained 161,000 followers, a 42% follower increase.

“I’ve never seen anything like that growth rate in my time working in social media,” Dennison said.

Outside the Big Four

Outside the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB, TikTok is becoming an increasingly important tool, and smaller leagues have also found early success on the platform.

The XFL, the football league owned by WWE CEO Vince McMahon’s Alpha Entertainment, which kicked off its inaugural season one week after Super Bowl LIV, is fairly new to TikTok. Senior director of social media Rael Enteen told Adweek the XFL started its account in November but didn’t post until Dec. 13, really ramping up its efforts when training camps got underway in January, “our first real opportunity to have access to the players.” 

Fred Harner, the league’s senior vice president of content and media, added that TikTok was “an exciting platform to get involved with early on.”

“It enabled us to reach a different social audience for us and for football, to try new things and to embrace some of the content that’s flying around on TikTok,” Harner said.

The XFL has more than 337,000 followers on TikTok, and it has tallied over 22 million video views. Enteen said the league’s most viewed video on any social platform was its Week 1 wrap-up on TikTok which garnered over 4 million views and more than 688,000 likes.

Harner said the league’s scale, growth and engagement in its short time on the platform have been impressive. Enteen added, “Most of the best content will be driven by football players doing football things. No one is breaking news on TikTok. We make good use of the time the players spend on the field during pregame warmups.”

Nascar’s debut on TikTok was quiet and measured. Its channel debuted in October, near the end of its racing season, with no promotion on other social platforms. Director of social media content Chris Littmann told Adweek his team spent months lurking on TikTok to learn about the platform and approach it in the right way. Although, he said, “a part of me kicks myself that we didn’t do it at the beginning of 2019.”

The Nascar TikTok account currently has 334,000 followers. Littmann described two of Nascar’s most popular videos on the platform. One depicts a crew member who looks like he’s using the “People’s Elbow”—the signature move of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson during his wrestling days—to knock the dents out of the back of a truck. Littmann’s team added World Wrestling Entertainment sounds that were already available on TikTok followed by the sound of someone screaming and an audio clip from “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley. The video has over 115,000 likes to date. The other most popular video was of driver Brad Keselowski coming in a little too hot for a pit stop during a race at Talladega Superspeedway last April, spinning around and pitting backwards. The Nascar social team created a video that toggles between a Nascar employee parallel parking his truck set to quiet music and Keselowski roaring into pit row to much louder music. That video has tallied more than 272,000 likes to date. 

“It’s been a really cool learning experience,” Littmann said of Nascar’s first few months on TikTok. “In the comments section, users seem fairly happy and genuinely curious about things.”

Major League Soccer is new to TikTok, having debuted its account in late February, just prior to the start of its regular season. Senior vice president of media Chris Schlosser told Adweek the league’s plan is to tailor its content to TikTok and not just repost content from other platforms. “It all starts with basic highlights, shining a moment on the great things that happen,” he said, adding that one of MLS’ videos—a goal by Los Angeles FC winger Carlos Vela—was approaching 2 million views.

MLS also seeks to showcase the personalities of its fans and players, and it features bloopers and other funny content. The league taps into TikTok’s Challenges feature to coordinate with individual clubs on particular challenges for each week of matches. “TikTok is a great complement to everything else we’re doing in the digital space,” Schlosser said. “We always take the idea that we want to be where our fans are.”

The WNBA, which also has built a robust following with 502,000 followers, said TikTok is a crucial platform for the league because it can appeal to girls at an important time in their life. “Appealing to an audience that is younger is imperative to the future of the WNBA as we develop the next generation of WNBA players and fans,” said WNBA COO Christy Hedgpeth. “By age 14, girls are dropping out of sports at two times the rate as boys. If we as a league can grab their attention via TikTok and show them how important sports is to personal growth and to simply having fun, we are all for it.”

Across all social media, Hedgpeth said, the WNBA is showing that its players are stars. “In a time when women athletes don’t get enough recognition, we want to make sure our content reflects how important we view WNBA players and how they should be viewed in society—as the strong, talented and world-class athletes they are.”

An uncertain future

With the leagues stuck in suspended animation, their social media appeals are more important than ever. They have built massive audiences on an array of social platforms but have never fully depended on them. Until now, casual fans could always watch live games and tune the rest out. But currently, the leagues are marketing a nonexistent product. Their task: Keep the attention of fans while striking the right tone at a grave and nerve-wracking moment for the world. It’s a delicate balance at a tenuous time.

An NBA spokesperson said the league is “completely focused on PSAs and having our guys encourage people to take COVID-19 seriously and take all precautions.” The NBA TikTok recently launched its “NBA Together” campaign and has posted a series of videos featuring players such as Victor Oladipo, Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic and the league’s two players who have tested positive for COVID-19—Gobert and Donavon Mitchellmaking these appeals. On Monday, the league also started the #NBAMomentChallenge, which, a spokesperson said, “asks fans, players and influencers, who are practicing social distancing, to recreate their favorite NBA moment in their home.”

@nba

A message from Luka Doncic and Dwight Powell

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The NHL posted a similar TikTok with messages from Tom Wilson, Dylan Larkin, P.K. Subban and others. “I miss playing in front of you guys, but this is bigger than hockey,” said Arizona Coyotes captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson in the video.

NHL CMO Heidi Browning and director of social media Dennison told Adweek the league has shifted its tone on social media to be more “straightforward and informative.” It’s also started the hashtag #hockeyathome, spotlighting players in social isolation, including one video of Colorado Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen working out by lifting his dog

@nhl

Mikko Rantanen is working out while practicing social distancing ???? ##nhl ##hockey ##sports ##hockeyathome ##happyathome (???? IG/cradnec)

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“We want to be empathetic with our fans during this time of uncertainty, so we are not incorporating humor or clever headline copy at this time,” Browning and Dennison said in a joint statement. “That said, we recognize that people are looking for an escape from the news, so we are monitoring comments and conversation to get a sense of fan mindset and will lighten up when appropriate.”

MLB posted its first TikTok related to the coronavirus pandemic Thursday featuring New York Mets first basemen Pete Alonso’s heartfelt message to a fan.

@mlb

Pete Alonso + other Mets left an amazing message for this huge fan, who is battling cancer and was sad about the season getting delayed ????##wholesome

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The XFL had not posted on TikTok since March 8, during what turned out to be its final week of games for the season. A league spokesperson said that it was hoping to pick up where it left off next season but offered no details about the league’s immediate plans for the channel.

Nascar hasn’t taken its foot off the gas despite postponing its races, continuing to populate its TikTok channel with humorous videos featuring its drivers and fans.

MLS did not respond to a request for comment about its plans for TikTok in light of the postponement of its season, but after a brief period of inactivity, its channel is frequently adding videos of players at home with their families and working out on their own.

Meanwhile, the NFL has been abuzz with real, breaking news in recent days—it’s just about the only league that can make that boast. Deep into its offseason, the NFL’s decision to carry on with free agency negotiations has driven a flurry of sports news, including Brady’s decision to leave the New England Patriots for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In the weeks to come, however, league spokesperson Brenna Webb told Adweek, the NFL plans to amplify players creating “at-home content,” offer fans “encouragement and positivity” on social media and promote news surrounding free agency and the upcoming NFL Draft, which is still set to start on April 23. While the NFL hasn’t posted any coronavirus-related messages on TikTok yet, it has done so on other platforms including Instagram and Twitter. 

With most sports off the air, niche sports have an opportunity to shine. PBR took center stage this weekend on CBS Sports Network—just without the 12,000 fans who were expected to turn up. Since then, CDC guidelines changed to recommend gatherings be limited to groups of 10, and PBR has suspended its season until further notice. It too is rethinking its social strategy. “It’s really summed up as a desire to continue to be creative while taking great caution at the same time,” a spokesperson told Adweek. “We are a sports and entertainment company. Our goal, always, is to engage our fans and provide joy. We hope to continue to do that during challenging times.”

Moving on

In a time when fans cannot tune in to watch live sports on TV, they’re going to have to turn to platforms for access to their favorite players. Athletes, like many of us, are away from their workplaces and a little bit bored. Many are even livestreaming themselves playing video games, even competing with fellow athletes in virtual versions of their own sport.  

“So now that the NBA season has been put on hold and we’ve been advised to self-quarantine ourselves,” Thybulle said while putting on a latex glove, “the only logical thing for me to do at this point is to start making TikToks.” 

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