NBA, a hit in online video, is looking to grow in social media
The National Basketball Assn. is heading into the 2011 playoffs on the heels of what the league says is one of its most successful seasons on TV and the Internet so far.
And through online video, smartphone and tablet apps and social media gaming, the NBA is working to keep the momentum up after the season ends, a champion is crowned, and, in the worst-case scenario, if it finds itself in the midst of a possible player lockout.
The NBA set an all-time high for itself with more than 1.9 billion videos viewed on NBA.com this season, and the league is expecting to pass the 2 billion video view mark in the postseason, said John Acunto, a league spokesman.
More than 100 million people follow or "like" the Facebook and Twitter accounts of the NBA, its teams and its players, placing the league among the most popular professional sports organizations in social media, he said. About 8.2 million fans "like" the NBA's official page, a number that was at about 2 million a little more than a year ago.
The increased popularity of NBA content on the Internet has come as ratings for professional basketball on TV in the U.S. have risen too. Games were up 38% from last season on ABC, up 28% on ESPN and up 42% on TNT, with each network having their most-viewed NBA regular season ever, Acunto said.
NBA Commissioner David Stern said the higher TV viewership and increased traffic via new-media paths on the Internet is the result of the NBA being open to embracing technology in its earlier stages.
"You can track with precision the way our fans stay connected to us," Stern said. "When there are a billion downloads of streams of highlights from NBA.com, when players in the NBA have 50 million 'likes' on Facebook and probably another 400 million YouTube views, then you know that this whole community is there. And community, that is a key aspect of the Internet.
"Now how that translates into, let's say, attendance or viewing is another issue. But I dare say that our increased ratings this year come with help from social media, this digital water cooler, this digital grapevine -- and that leads ultimately to e-commerce and NBA TV, which is in 55 million households, NBA League Pass, NBA Game Time."
NBA League Pass is the association's TV package that allows subscribers to watch regular-season games outside their local viewing area.
The NBA also offers different League Pass packages, which varied in price this season from about $110 to $190, for access to games online.
One package, NBA League Pass Broadband, uses high-speed Internet connections to stream game videos to a computer, while NBA League Pass Mobile streams video to smartphones and tablet computers.
In February, just before the 2011 NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles, more than 3.2 million people had downloaded NBA League Pass and NBA Game Time apps for their smartphones and tablet computers, said Bryan Perez, senior vice president of NBA Digital -- a partnership between the NBA and Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting.
"Everything is going increasingly online, and with that increasingly toward online video," Perez said. "As many people as watch video on TV nowadays watch video online, though it's not always the same type of video. But when you're dealing with numbers in the billions, numbers like that, it doesn't take a lot of convincing to show what we're doing online is effective."
With the NBA on pace to surpass 2 billion videos streamed from NBA.com -- including highlights, press interviews and games -- the league could end up doubling its online video traffic from a year earlier.
In the 2009-10 full season (which includes the regular season, All-Star Game and events, the playoffs and the NBA Finals), NBA.com served up 1.1 billion video streams, said Acunto, the league spokesman. In the 2008-09 season, which was the same year NBA Digital was formed, that number was 870 million, up from 322 million streams in 2007-08, he said.
Now NBA Digital, based in Atlanta, is looking to replicate the success it's had so far with online video into the world of social networking, Perez said.
In February, the league released NBA Legend, a social media game on Facebook built by San Francisco start-up Lionside. So far the game has 1.1 million monthly users, with steadily increasing traffic, according to the research firm AppData.
NBA Legend enables users to create their own virtual players on their favorite of the NBA's 30 teams and pit them against other top players in the league in simulated games.
Users are awarded and, using Facebook Credits, can buy alternate jerseys, new sneakers and even Hall of Fame players such as former Lakers' guard Jerry West for use in the game.
Jim Bankoff, chief executive of the Washington, D.C.-based sports blogging site SB Nation, said proof of the NBA's seriousness toward embracing technology can be seen in the annual NBA Tech Summit it holds in the city that hosts the All-Star Game.
"It's interesting a sports league would conduct what seems to be the most important tech summit in sports, but that's the case," Bankoff said of the summit, which he attended in February. "I saw everyone from Charles Barkley to Malcolm Gladwell to the president of EBay there."
However, the league could be working more with others to get its content online to an even broader audience, said Bankoff, who was previously AOL's vice president of programming and products.
"There's even more opportunity for them to do syndication, get it more out there beyond NBA.com and their sites and apps," he said. "Obviously I'm a little bit biased since SB Nation is a site that covers the NBA, but I think they'd see even more growth if they were to open it up a bit."
NBA officials declined to say if they would expand their online efforts into wider distribution of the league's video and other online content, but Perez did point to the NBA's ventures into social media as an example of creating new content when and where appropriate for its own business.
"We know not everything is going to work, but if you're afraid of failure, then we don't think you're going to get where you need to go," he said. "There is massive, massive growth in social gaming. If you look at the number of people that play Farmville, more people play that on a daily basis than the number of people who play all fantasy sports combined.
"We felt like we have such a strong position in social media that we felt we could be very successful in reaching the fans that we have, and that's what we're working to do."
Stern said the NBA has been able to create a new revenue stream from social media, though he declined to offer exact numbers on just how a big a business that is.
"NBA.com is a place that sells ads and we have robust sales on that site. And that ties together with NBA TV, which is in 65 million households," the commissioner said. "We do monetize Facebook a bit as well. We have pages on Facebook, and we're selling sponsorships across different media platforms. Our sponsors know they can work with us on TV, on our website, on cable, on satellite and now on social media."
But despite the increased efforts online, Stern said he didn't want to overstate the importance of social media to the NBA.
"A year ago social media wasn't in use at the same level, and a year from now it might be in use even more, but you never know what might come next," he said.
However, the NBA is willing to experiment, Stern said.
"I think the road map for us is we try it and we want to be first," he said. "We were very early to have a website. We were very early to have a television network. We were very early to be on Facebook and YouTube and Twitter. We're experimenting with Gowalla and we're experimenting with Foursquare and all sorts of things. We let the fans tell us what works and what doesn't, and we'll make sure to be where they are."
But while Stern declined to predict exactly what's next, he did say mobile content is likely to be the platform that consumers embrace.
"When you step back, you realize that when cellphones turn into iPhones and Androids and BlackBerrys and Windows Phones, those cellphones become hand-held viewing devices," he said. "You begin to see a different form of communication with our fans. And we're very sensitive to the fact that there are millions of phones in China and India and Africa."
Seemingly, the largest threat of dampening the NBA's momentum online -- whether on desktop computers, on living room TV screens or on smartphones -- could be a lockout as a result of no new collective bargaining agreement between the NBA, owners and players (who take 57% of the league's revenue).
"A work stoppage is very bad for our business," Stern said. "It's very bad no matter what your distribution method is or what type of business you're in."
-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles
Images: A screenshot of the NBA Legend game on Facebook and the NBA Game Time app on an Apple iPhone. Credit: National Basketball Assn.
[Correction 6:12 p.m.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that NBA TV, the National Basketball Assn.'s cable and satellite television network, was in 65 million homes. It is in 55 million homes.]