[Charts and Tables Updated 1/17/20: Due to the large influx of traffic, the autoupdating feature on the graphs and tables had to be disabled. Working on a solution for that while adding additional accounts and a better way to view data. In the meantime, these have been manually updated and are current as of January 17, 2020]
The NBA was one of the first sports leagues to embrace Social Media, so it would only be logical if they were one of the first to have a problem with it. It’s not a problem of controversies involving players, but one of their coverage. We know this because of a twitter thread from Scotty PIPM that detailed how tweets from Bleacher Report and ESPN had disproportionally mentioned the Lakers while in most cases omitting most playoff teams. This created a lot of stir on Twitter. I’ll admit when I went through that thread it hit every past bias of mine that feels that the NBA more than most professional sports leagues loves to lay on the large market bias thick. When I read it I thought, “Wow it’s worse than I thought.” But it’s actually WAY worse.
For the past few days, I have been sifting through some of the league’s biggest Twitter accounts data from common words, highlights, hashtags, number of tweets, number of retweets, and number of likes. I created a search that related every player, their nicknames, their twitter nicknames for brevity, and twitter handle and attributed it back to their corresponding teams. While Scotty did a lot of anecdotal hunting, I wanted the data. I wanted the numbers. Not just from the past few weeks, but a way to track it further than that as the season goes on. The tweets start from January 4th, 2020.
The sources that I pulled from were the twitter accounts of ESPNNBA, BRNBA, SLAMonline, TheCrossover, TheNBACentral, NoDunksInc, WorldWideWob, RingerNBA, BallisLife, FirstTake, NBA, SBNation, SBNationNBA, TheAthleticNBA, HoopsHype, NBAonTNT, InsideHoops, TheUndefeated, TheHoopCentral, and bballbreakdown. I’m sure there are others that are similar in size (and more will be added later on), but these accounts are a good starting point and push a big narrative in #NBATwitter.
Now I know that there is a chance for some non-NBA-related stuff to merge with this. After all some of these accounts don’t just primarily tweet about the NBA. Some don’t tweet primarily about sports either. But it does serve as a good reference to how much momentum a team is getting on Twitter in the NBA.
To get us started let’s just take a look at this unsettling NBA team disparity that is currently encompassing a lot of #NBATwitter’s biggest heavyweights.
[Disclaimer: If some of the stats in the tables or charts don’t match the story, it means they have updated. They update every hour or so. The stats referenced in this article are current as of January 13th, 2020.]
Total Tweets For Each Team
Total Retweets For Each Team
Total Likes For Each Team
This doesn’t feel good, does it? It’s inequitable. If you’re a small market team, it’s discouraging. For the NBA, this has to be embarrassing. Individual NBA Team Affiliated Twitter Accounts already know the limitations (or lack thereof) of their markets whether they are small or large, but some of these are the NBA’s paid partners that can easily cross markets, borders, and oceans with their content. It’s good to be in news, for sure. If you’re one of the NBA’s small market teams, this is exhibit A for why you are struggling to retain your top talent in your market.
Just three teams make up 35% of all tweets by the largest #NBATwitter players. Those teams?
If you’re wondering where Luka is with all the Luka craziness, this is just the last 7 days. The Mavericks have been trending downward over the last few weeks and the lightning rod of a lot of #NBATwitter highlights isn’t getting the pub. But want to know who is? Trae Young. Putting up 40+ scoring games (while still losing) is enough to get you more coverage BY YOURSELF than the entire Utah Jazz who are on a 9-game winning streak. The Atlanta Hawks who hold the worst record in the entire NBA at 8-32 are enjoying more twitter press than the Utah Jazz who are 27-12 while tied for the NBA’s third best record.
That’s only if you’re a Utah Jazz fan. If you’re the Milwaukee Bucks and own the best record in the NBA, you’ve got to be livid. Since January 4th, the Milwaukee Bucks only have 1.38% with a combined 201 tweets. Even worse, Lakers mascot and role player Alex Caruso has just 9 less total tweet mentions than the defending MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
There’ll always be a crazy viral sensation due to a Sundiata Gaines moment, a trade that involves a random player but includes a star, and there are always upsets. But in the larger scheme of things, there’s a huge problem. A lot of these accounts are big partners of the NBA like TNT or ESPN. But lest anyone think it’s because of these larger sources and not the NBA yourself, they’d be mistaken. The league’s official Twitter account is just as terrible about this. One would hope the #NBATwitter apples are falling far from the @NBA tree, but sadly, @NBA is setting the tone for league’s trending stories and everyone else is falling in line.
The Utah Jazz that are on a 9 game winning streak? They make up 3.26% of all Twitter mentions as of January 13th. But who comprise @NBA’s top three? The same accounts as the totals for all the main influencers of #NBATwitter.
- Philadelphia 76ers - 11.05%
- Los Angeles Lakers - 9.61%
- Atlanta Hawks - 10.88%
These three teams monopolize almost 31% of all @NBA’s tweets. The remaining 69% is then split between 27 teams for an average of 2.5% per team. In other words for every one tweet about the Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, or Utah Jazz, the NBA pushes out five tweets for the 76ers, Lakers, or Hawks.
This is what happens when Social Media teams chase engagement numbers
One of the big lies of social media for big brands in 2020 is that reach, impressions, and comments actually turn into increased attention later on. A tweet or post goes viral and does numbers, but rarely does it actually provide any return to the business. I have worked for companies that have chased BIG influencers because of their follower count and reach, only to find out that collaborating with them brings zero ROI. They don’t truly ENGAGE. Their engagement numbers look like they do, but they’re numbers that don’t actually measure impact and what to expect moving forward. They may just be controversial, use bots, or, worse, they aren’t earnest. This is a huge problem for the NBA brands as social media continues to mature. If you look at #NBATwitter influencer numbers, it appears most of their strategies are based in the blind pursuit of reach, impressions, and controversy.
An NBA account can put out a post about Alex Caruso working out and because of the Lakers’ worldwide audience, it will do more numbers than a Rudy Gobert game saving block. Those numbers will then look great when that social media manager—who’s on the bottom rung in the pecking order of their marketing team—is pointing to their spreadsheet at their year-end review while trying to justify to those illiterate to Social Media and Marketing that they’re not just making memes all day. Those engagement numbers are vital for saving their job when all the large brands are looking for a quick return on their investment. So they’ll point to those numbers and say, “We reached millions of people last year. MILLIONS.”
But that’s both the lie and the ugly truth in social media marketing. Social Media creates the buzz around something and can serve as planting the seeds for future notoriety. But jumping on trending keywords and hashtags does neither of those. It’s like joining in on the wave in a stadium. Everyone was engaged, but it’s fleeting, provides no future value, and—most importantly—it’s stupid.
In the NBA, that trend hopping requires kowtowing to the largest NBA celebrities, largest fanbases, and whoever those celebrities and markets dictate is their new mascot like an Alex Caruso or #TacoTuesday video. As this process has accelerated in the pursuit of CLICKZZZ, it’s turned #NBATwitter into over-saturation, excess, and imbalance toward a small *insert Bernie voice here* 1% of #NBATwitter Elites. These players and teams like the Lakers, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Sixers, Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons become #NBATwitter’s equivalents to Amazon, Apple, and Google. They encompass way too much of the conversation, they’re stifling market growth, but if you include them in your tweet, you get huge dividends.
But this 1% is alienating fanbases and keeping large market fanbases apathetic and ignorant to the players of 29 other teams, or, in the case of the NBA’s Twitter account, 27 other teams. Just take a look at the #NBAVote. It’s a fan vote, yes. Zach Lowe even jokingly said he likes seeing fanbases riled up and sarcastically said that Jazz fans are “just aggrieved about everything. Who think everyone is against them. Who are so loud on twitter. Well, get the vote out. Get the vote out. Are you the lazy people who are like, ‘I don’t want to vote. It doesn’t change anything?’” But the fan vote is being heavily influenced by larger #NBATwitter influencers dominating the discussion. It’s why Dwight Howard and Alex Caruso are top vote getters, Rudy Gobert is not even in the top ten in big man, and the league’s biggest victory cigar Tacko Fall is in the top ten in the East.
Look in the mirror time, #NBATwitter
It’s important for these NBA accounts and brands to take a long look in the mirror and actually put together a long-term strategy. Not a one year, but a five to ten year strategy of what they hope to accomplish with Social Media influence. It is going to require the NBA to do some heavy outreach and collaboration with these brands. The NBA may feel like they’re getting free promotion without these influencer accounts now, but the consequences of engagement hunting could already be planting the seeds of a heavily imbalanced landscape of NBA fanbases in the upcoming generation of fans.
The next crop of young stars in the NBA are already here and beyond Luka Doncic and Trae Young, they’re largely being ignored because they either don’t play in one of the NBA’s large markets, are not putting up BIG offensive numbers, not creating unnecessary drama with a Kardashian, beefing with Luka, or any combination of those four.
The NBA was one of the first leagues to embrace Social Media, but now it is in an abusive relationship with the platform, absorbing its worst tendencies such as celebrity culture, gossip, and drama. That amount of publicity may drive clicks, but it leaves behind everyone who loves the game of basketball for, you know, basketball. Ethan Strauss of The Athletic talked about this shortsighted social media strategy in his article on this topic a few days ago:
If these accounts are tweeting exponentially more about Carmelo Anthony than, say, anyone on the Utah Jazz, it’ll be hard for the Jazz to get an audience if they make a playoff run.
Again, this phenomenon might not be that big a deal if Twitter didn’t set the conversation for everything else. The resulting supply chain is one that promotes the NBA as a place of peripheral drama, but not a place where winning ultimately matters much.
Is the NBA trying to grow their basketball brand on social media or just have their players reach celebrity status, become influencers, or be trending for the impressions?
What makes this strategy even more shortsighted is social media is all organic traffic. They—for the most part—drive the traffic without spending a dime on it with followers in excess of 200,000 and way above. This isn’t an ad where they’re looking to get people to pester their cable companies for the sports package while maximizing ad spend and ROI. This is beautiful and FREE traffic. They just have to compose tweets and press send without swiping the company card or cutting a check.
With this free traffic, the NBA could be building up all markets to increase parity. They could be increasing the allure of defense and create defensive stars in their league just as much as there are defensive stars in the NFL. They could be growing brands of lesser markets so they can have better attention across the board in the playoffs, but instead, they’ve become the Lakers, Hawks, and Sixers secondary promotion channels.
Can #NBATwitter change for the better?
Yes. There’s signs that one of the larger Twitter accounts has started to make an effort in the last week. The Bleacher Report NBA Twitter account that was the main target of that Twitter thread seems to have made a 180 with their coverage. It remains to be seen if this is a couple week blip to avoid getting dragged and the poster child for disproportionate promotion of the NBA’s teams, but there has been a change. Since the 4th of January, the Utah Jazz have become the third most talked about team on Bleacher Report NBA’s account. But that’s just the Utah Jazz. Other teams like the Pacers, Bucks, Raptors, and Nuggets haven’t been as lucky.
These brands can change for the better, but there has to be an actual strategy behind their promotion. That should be expected with brands or accounts of these size that drive the conversation. The NBA should work with large (and small) influencers to drive what real engagement is and help provide strategies for helping all teams get some time in the spotlight. This doesn’t mean that they can dictate positive coverage on a terrible team, but we can all agree that at bare minimum there shouldn’t be this much of a disparity when it comes to free publicity.
Many think that the best crop of Social Media Managers are creative and are ahead of the meme economy—and they are—BUT they also realize that social media has the potential to create stars, buzz, and popularity around unknown entities with enough flashlights. If the only NBA entities doing that are the official NBA Team Twitter accounts, the NBA’s marketing efforts are going to fall south. Their official media partners and big influencers have to be part of creating the next crop of NBA stars.
There can be more equitable coverage of the NBA’s non-celebrities who are damn good players and MUCH more coverage of the successful small market franchises. It only makes sense as a long term strategy. Hopefully, this can serve as the wakeup for the NBA, its promoters, and its partners.
Metrics for #NBATwitter Brand and Influencer Accounts
Below are the Twitter metrics for a lot of the big #NBATwitter Brand and Influencer accounts. Give them a look for yourselves to find your team and see where they rank. See which big brands and influencer may give your team more or less coverage than others.
If you’re the social media teams of some of these larger brands or just one of the influencers, remember how much your drive the conversation with your platform and reach. Put yourselves back in the shoes of you as a fan, would your overall coverage frustrate you?
#NBATwitter - Team Tweets
#NBATwitter - Retweets
#NBATwitter - Likes