LeBron, Embiid, Antetokounmpo: Why the NBA’s MVPs are marketing gold

Global head of Publicis, Robin Clarke on why marketeers need to jump on the NBA player train before it is too late

Sporting stars are some of the most followed and active on social media today. Whether it’s David Beckham sharing snapshots of intimate family moments with his 42 million Instagram followers, or Anthony Joshua having a jab at Tyson Fury on Twitter, it’s a force to be reckoned with. But one sport in particular is really making its mark – basketball.

Top players such as LeBron James, James Harden and Steph Curry are driving interaction with fans online, so much so that they are becoming a pivotal part in the movement of the sport. They are making their mark in helping the National Basketball Association (NBA) to become the new National Football League (NFL) of American culture - and for marketers, it’s an opportunity not to be missed.

The NBA Basketball Social Performance Index (SPI) study, compiled by Publicis Media Sports and Entertainment (PMSE), ranked athletes’ reach, engagement, growth and frequencies on social media. It revealed some key trends driving this new culture in the NBA and helped us understand exactly how marketers can take advantage of this rich dialogue.

Next-gen fans are key

From our findings, it’s the upcoming stars of the NBA that are making a name for themselves. The Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid were recently named All-Star starters, demonstrating how younger and more socially engaging players are already amassing loyal fanbases. Coincidentally, all three players who scored high in early All-Star voting experienced an increase in their SPI score this year: Antetokounmpo (+47), Embiid (+29) and the New York Knicks’ Kristaps Porziņģis (+11).

Let’s take Embiid as an example of someone who has helped transform the culture of the NBA through social. He is entertaining, true to himself and shares content that spans beyond his expertise to include other global sports. Despite having less followers than Golden State Warriors’ Klay Thompson, he’s more skilled at engaging his fanbase - having generated 11,000 more likes and 3,800 more comments over the past year. Interestingly, his popularity extends far beyond 76ers devotees, with roughly 98 per cent of his followers not being 76ers fans or even following the team on social. His 29-point jump in off-season ranking compared to 2016 is also an indication of his growing global presence.

Jae Crowder of the Utah Jazz, again a young player, moved up the ranks of our SPI for his strong engagement rate and ability to balance personal and professional life, all while adding a sense of humor. Crowder’s score grew by more than 122 per cent over the year, partly due to his move from the Boston Celtics to the Cleveland Caveliers and the fact that off-season social chatter kept him in the spotlight.

The more drama, the better

The growth of social media, teamed with use of the league’s greatest players, has given fans from around the world a front-row seat for the drama unfolding on and off the court. Media rights for the NBA are much more flexible than the NFL, so content can more easily go viral. But it’s the popularity of emojis and witty fans that are driving rumors on everything from trade deals to who’s dating whom.

More importantly, you also have NBA royalty like Steph and LeBron weighing in directly on anything to do with game day commentary, family life or even societal events. This new stem of social media activity has prompted a new, abbreviated language to emerge - and it’s not just NBA fans who can understand these conversations.

Content Reigns

Be it a young, up and coming player, or top of league star, their social media engagement is not guaranteed. Great content is the key to driving followers, likes and fans. James Harden, the fifth-most followed player, and Kevin Durant, the second-most followed player, are two examples of solid players who do not offer a true look behind the scenes, so their SPI score has dropped since 2016. Steph and LeBron, on the other hand, chime in on current events and aren’t afraid to share an inside view of their family and personal life, driving greater authenticity and consistently earning them a spot at the top on our SPI listing.

According to our research, the average daily engagement driven by the top 117 players doubled in 2017, while frequency of posting remained the same. Players were posting about the same amount, but fans were more engaged and the rise of Instagram is a key reason why. According to eMarketer, nearly 594 million people worldwide used Instagram regularly in 2017, representing about a quarter of social network users.

NBA players, just like the David Beckhams of the world, are becoming social media stars in their own right. It’s an exciting opportunity for marketers, not only to drive greater awareness or association, but to build an affiliation with a certain player, ultimately driving greater ROI. From our research we can see that there are still players who hold a strong SPI ranking who have not yet been engaged for marketing endorsements.

We recommend brands snap up these players and take the opportunity while it’s there. These untapped social media superstars may be the key to marketing success as NBA players keep the conversations going once the buzzer has sounded.