The King of Sports Content: NBA Brand Review

As the NBA gears up for its 74th season, we anticipate it to be one of the most exciting in recent history. 

The busy off-season and a loaded draft class have shaped a league where multiple teams have a shot at winning the title in 2020. 

Meanwhile, the NBA dominates social media content and sports brand awareness across the globe. For the NBA in 2019, business couldn’t be better.

However, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Throughout its existence, the NBA has continued to revolutionize the way sports are watched and marketed. Today they are dabbling in new technology that aims to bring everyone closer to the game. 

In this month’s Brand Review, we take a look at the NBA’s digital marketing and brand strategies. We’ll explore the history and how they have successfully captured the hearts of a young, urban, and global audience.  

The Birth of Basketball

It was the Winter of 1891-92 inside a small gymnasium on the campus of Springfield College

Students grew tired of their indoor gym class and their instructor, Dr. James Naismith, decided to do something about it. He set out to invent a brand new game that would be easy to assimilate, but hard enough to be interesting. 

The solution was simple yet highly effective. Naismith fastened a loose peach basket to a metal pole on campus. This basket, along with a soccer ball, and a set of 13 rules still represents the framework of the game known today as basketball.

 

Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of Basketball
(Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of the sport, with the first basketball and the first hoop.)

 

Initially, as Naismith was the inventor of the new game, the original propose name was the ‘Naismith Game.’ However, Naismith suggested, “We have a ball and a basket: why don’t we call it basketball?”

In a matter of weeks, students at Springfield College introduced the new game of ‘basketball’ to friends at the local YMCA. At the time, schools and recreation centers around the country were in desperate need of a winter sport that could be played inside. Basketball was the perfect fit, and it caught on like wildfire. Naismith sent rule sheets to YMCA branches around the country. By 1905, high schools and colleges across the United States introduced the game as an official winter sport. 

The First Professional Basketball League

The NBA officially got its start as The Basketball Association of America in 1946. In 1949, the league merged with the National Basketball League to form what we now know as the National Basketball Association, commonly abbreviated to the ‘NBA.’

 

Fort Wayne Pistons
(The Fort Wayne Pistons Played Their Home Games in a High School Gymnasium.)


Despite initial enthusiasm, within six years the number of teams thinned from sixteen down to eight. Early financial support from the industrialist owner of the Fort Wayne Pistons,
Fred Zollner almost single-handedly kept the league afloat. In the early years, he contributed financial assistance, transportation, and personnel to keep the league alive.

The popularity of baseball (known as the national past-time) and football meant that the NBA struggled to stay on its feet. While the NBA sludged on, the MLB was celebrating 100 years of professional baseball, and the NFL had entered its 50th season. 

The fledgling league managed to survive with just eight teams until 1969 when The Chicago Packers (now known as the Washington Wizards) joined the ranks. In 1965, the ABC network televised the first game, between the Boston Celtics and Cincinnati Royals (known today as the Sacramento Kings).

 

NBA on CBS 1974
(ABC first televised the NBA from 1965-1973, before being taken over by CBS from 1974-1990.)

 

From the 1960s through to the 1980s the league continued to grow in popularity. New stars emerged and began to gain followings of their own: Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Julius’ Dr. J’ Irving, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Larry Bird, Earvin’ Magic’ Johnson, and of course, Michael Jordan. The list of feats and achievements gree throughout this era, as games became televised. 

A Growing Global Interest

Thanks to the popularity of players such as Michael Jordan, and brands such as Nike becoming intricately involved with the sport, the league grew. From 1996 to 2004 the NBA welcomed in 21 new teams from a variety of regions. This growth set the foundation for a league that now boasts worldwide recognition and ravenous fan support. 

The post-Jordan era resulted in a large influx of international players joining teams and expanding the reach of the sport. Yao Ming from China joined the Houston Rockets, Dirk Nowitzki of Germany was brought on by the Dallas Mavericks, the Atlanta Hawks drafted Paul Gasol of Spain.

 

Yao Ming playing for the houston rockets
(Yao Ming, originally played for the Chinese Basketball Association before the NBA.)


This influx of global players not only created diversity in the league, but it also drew massive fandom from the countries of players who made it in the NBA. With the NBA investing heavily in foreign talent, today some of the top young players come from places like Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia rather than New York or Los Angeles. 

Along with bringing international players into the league, the organization began expanding business operations abroad. In 2017, The NBA inked a $225 million deal with Japanese commerce giant Rakuten. The NBA already has a large amount of popularity in China, but this partnership gives the league a key distribution partner in Japan for all streamed games.

 

Jack Nicholson courtside with Michael Jordan
(Celebrities such as Jack Nicholson became courtside regulars at games for teams like the LA ‘Showtime’ Lakers.)

The League of Superteams

The NBA thrives on what some historians coin “teams of the era.” What we now refer to as a superteam is nothing new for the league.

NBA Fans often debate whether or not this domination is good for the sport. But nobody can argue with the intrigue these larger than life teams bring the NBA.

  • 1948-54: The first team to dominate the league was the Minneapolis Lakers led by George Mikan
  • 1957-69: Following the Lakers, a Celtics team led by Bill Russell won an unprecedented 11 championships in 13 seasons.
  • 1980-88: In the ’80s, Magic Johnson led the Showtime Lakers and Larry Bird’s Celtics were the team to watch year after year. They went on to combine for eight of the ten titles of the decade.
  • 1991-98: The ’90s marked the formation of a worldwide icon with Michael Jordan and the age of Jumpman. Jordan led the Bulls to six championships in the ’90s and cemented his legacy as one of the greatest athletes in history and in the eyes of many, the best basketball player to ever play.

These patterns of domination are still present in the modern-day NBA with the Shaq-Kobe Lakers in the late 90s’, a short Celtics run led by Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, The Warriors championships, and finally the freakish athleticism of Lebron James. 

Bigger Than Basketball

Shaquille O'Neal ads and products
(Shaquille O’Neal made $30 million a season during his career, but has made even more through endorsements.)

 

This domination by a select few teams and players turned out to be a gold mine. Both for the league and the brands that rest on its success. Players like Michael Jordan became marketers dreams with millions of young fans desperately wanting to be just “Like Mike.” 

The rise of the Jordan Brand proved a massive win for Nike, but also for the NBA. The immense impact NBA stars have on popular and urban culture cannot be understated. Jordan is reported to make almost $145 Million from endorsements in 2019.

No one player exemplifies this sentiment more than the always entertaining Shaquille O’neal. Now a TV analyst for TNT, he once dominated the league as a center for the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Miami Heat. Since retiring, he has used his celebrity from basketball to skyrocket his personal brand and wealth. 

While his classic Icy Hot commercials are the most well known, Shaq has endorsed 50 products and counting. His private ventures include 100+ Five Guys Burger Joints, Car Washes, Fitness Centers, Las Vegas nightclubs, and various Auntie Anne’s Pretzel stands. 

The Adam Silver Era

A significant factor in the success of the modern-day NBA is the impressive tenure of current NBA commissioner Adam Silver. In just one season, Silver secured his reputation as the most progressive and forward-thinking Commissioner in all of sports. Silver allowed players to protest the Eric Garner grand jury decision and made a tough decision around the Donald Sterling controversy by banning the owner for racist comments.

According to Associate Professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University Malo André Hutson.

“I think the NBA recognizes the intersectionality of race, culture, and socioeconomic status of its players. I think it comes all the way from the commissioners to coaches.”

 

adam-silver NBA commissioner
(Adam Silver spent eight years as the President of NBA Media before becoming Commissioner.)

 

There’s no doubt the NBA is in a better place now than when Silver took over. And fortunately, the Adam Silver leadership era won’t end anytime soon. After just three years at the helm, the NBA extended his contract through the 2023-24 season.

A Leader in Digital Media

Unlike the NFL, the NBA is a player-driven league. Small team sizes allow for greater player fan interaction, and that’s great news for the NBA’s marketing department. 

Michael Jordan dominated the pre-internet 1990’s, while Steph Curry and Lebron James define today’s hyperconnected world. 

As social media became more prevalent in society, the NBA did its part to ensure that individual player personalities are never hidden from fans.

 

tweeting about NBA
(Former Boston Celtics player Paul Pierce tweeting courtside. In 2018, the NBA was tweeted about more than any other sports league.)

 

Some of the most viral NBA social media moments include Lebron James’ “decision,” Riley Curry’s takeover of her dad (Steph Curry’s) press conference, JR Smith’s Final’s blunder, the 2015 emoji war, the banana boat team, and plenty more. 

When it comes to content marketing, The NBA gives fans everything they desire. The league doesn’t police it’s copyrighted content throughout the web. 

This freedom gives fans opportunities to share highlights and create user-generated content. A perfect example is the House of Highlights Instagram page, which now boasts 14 Million followers posted daily sports clips. By giving freedom to share content on Instagram and other online media platforms, the NBA allows fans to grow awareness for the sport organically throughout the world. 

Silver explained this thought process in an interview with the Strategy + Business Journal:

“We promote the posting of our highlights. The highlights are identified through YouTube’s software, and when ads are sold against them, we share in the revenue. If we provide those snacks to our fans on a free basis, they’re still going to want to eat meals. We believe that greater fan engagement through social media helps drive television ratings.” 

No Off-Season for Content

The NBA’s recent streak of dominating year-round sports news and media is a modern-day marketing miracle. 

The NBA offseason is now dominated by the likes of the NBA Summer League and wild free agency periods. In many demographics, the NBA offseason stories hold more weight than either the MLB or the NFL.

 

(The 2018 Summer League marked the first time all 30 NBA teams participated in the series.)

 

Once again, this success comes back to the individual personalities on display all year round. Not only are current stars like Stephen Curry dominating headlines, but past stars like Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Dennis Rodman, and Kobe Bryant all remain relevant in today’s pop-culture. 

Another important aspect of this trend is the ability of players to control league headlines. The league’s best players regularly swap teams, keeping the rumor mills moving. This constant change proves to be great content for news networks and social media pages alike.

In the age of information, consumers expect constant online engagement with their favorite brands. Knowing this, the NBA successfully leveraged its six month season into a 24/7 365 days a week news cycle. 

At a time when brands struggle to stay relevant within Google’s overly saturated SERPs (search engine ranking pages), the NBA has no problem finding ways of producing fresh and compelling content 

What’s Next for The NBA?

When it comes to brand strategy, nobody beats the NBA in building long-term fan loyalty. Each season offers viewers competition, celebrity players, and novel sporting experiences.

 

NBA AR App
(The NBA first started experimenting with VR way back in 2014.)

 

And now, the NBA league is innovating with new offerings in Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) viewings of games and content. The NBA AR App has been created to bring fans around the world up close and behind the scenes through augmented reality. The league’s goal is to move toward live augmented reality, offering every viewer the best seat in the house for every game.

“Even people who aren’t huge basketball fans recognize that the courtside seat at an NBA, WNBA game, the great college game, is one of the best seats in all of sports,” explained Adam Silver

Business Lessons from the NBA

The NBA continues to place large bets on the technology of tomorrow. But, perhaps more importantly, they focus on maintaining the brand they’ve built over the past 73 years.

Here are four key lessons that any brand can use to emulate the enormous success of the NBA: 

  1. Consistently generate your own content and make sure it’s shareable.
  2. Use social media as a tool to leverage influencers and brand partnerships.
  3. Develop stories and content to help stay relevant year-round.
  4. Run your business with empathy and treat all employees as a valued advocate for your brand.


With a rich history behind them, the NBA’s future looks bright ahead. Exciting new technologies and an excellent content and media strategy have set them up for success long term. The NBA provides not just an appealing past time for fans, but an example for other professional sports leagues moving forward. 
 

 

Ready to grow your brand or social media reach? Brandastic is a digital marketing and social media agency with offices in Orange County, Los Angeles, and Austin. We help companies expand their online audience and grow their brand. Contact us today to get started.

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