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How the NBA’s embrace of social media might help it someday surpass the NFL

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver says one of seven people on earth will have a connection to the Finals. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

CLEVELAND — At the outset of the NBA Finals, Commissioner Adam Silver conducted an arithmetic exercise. He added the number of people projected to engage in some fashion with the Golden State WarriorsCleveland Cavaliers showdown, whether it meant viewing on a television screen, reading a player’s tweet or streaming a highlight over Facebook. The number he arrived at was 1 billion.

“So, roughly one out of seven people on this planet will have a direct connection to these Finals,” Silver said. “Which is pretty spectacular.”

Despite lackluster competition throughout the Finals, the NBA will enter the summer as an ascendant league, a cultural and global giant created through progressive marketing and aggressive social media. In a culture growing more individualistic, the NBA has employed nonrestrictive policies on sharing video online and exposing its players’ personalities.

While the NFL restricts the use of video highlights and markets teams and the league over players, the NBA has made up ground among millennials. Some in the NBA believe it could eventually surpass the NFL as America’s dominant sports league.

“Can I foresee it?” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wrote in an email. “Yes.”

The NBA has catered to younger fans with an emphasis on social media. It promotes its players, the most famous of whom are the most popular athletes in the country. On Twitter, 25.3 million people follow the NBA’s official account, compared to 23.5 million for the NFL. By the NBA’s measures, which it declined to share, the league’s social media accounts also have the youngest average age for any U.S. sports league.

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“We recognize that our fans are very young,” NBA Chief Marketing Officer Pam El said. “We know that they are very tech-savvy. We know they are all over social media. And we know that if we’re going to market to this younger fan, we need to be where they are. It’s certainly not by accident that we’re the No. 1 league across all social platforms. That is completely by design. We know that’s where those younger fans are getting their information. That’s where they’re engaging with brands they love, and the NBA is one of those brands.”

The NBA also sought to use social media to expand globally. It had an advantage in basketball’s broad appeal and a head start because of the success of the 1992 Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics. But no league caters to international consumers with more fervor. At the Finals, the NBA issued 265 credentials to media members from 35 foreign countries.

The NBA’s success with social media and technology has a major impact. Srinivasan Ramani, a reporter covering the NBA Finals for The Hindu newspaper of Chennai, India, said basketball cannot compete with cricket in India, and there are few courts outside of campuses, which means basketball is not viewed as a working-class sport.

But the NBA has courted Indian fans and started to make headway. The introduction of NBA League Pass in India this decade spawned new fans. Every few months, the NBA sends goodwill tours to India. NBA players Kenneth Faried and Shawn Marion recently visited. Ramani said Kevin Durant is scheduled to join a caravan this offseason.

“Slowly and surely, they are picking up basketball as one of the sports outside of cricket,” Ramani said. “Among the younger people, there is a thirst to go beyond what is fed to them by traditional media, which is cricket. Basketball, on the other hand, is seen as an exciting sport. LeBron [James] is popular. Everybody knows about him.”

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The future poses risks to all sports, the NBA not excepted. It has never been easier to put content in front of people, but profiting from it in an ever-changing landscape is the crucial challenge.

“It’s not just how they’re reaching these millennials today,” said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. “But how are they going to turn this solid outreach into consumers? They’re doing a couple things really, really well.”

The NBA generates the majority of its revenue through a $24 billion television rights deal, but “it comes with a cautionary note,” Carter said. As consumers, particularly younger viewers, move to cord cutting and skinny bundles, the future of rights deals appears to be in jeopardy.

Silver has attempted to combat the shift. The NBA has experimenting with streaming games and other content over Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and others. He hopes those companies, one day, will bid for streaming contracts in the way television networks do now, or did recently.

“My sense is over time those companies are increasingly going to look to premium live sports as a way of differentiating themselves from their competitors, so we continue to cultivate those relationships,” Silver said.

Cuban pointed to the need for the NBA to create “destination content.” While non-subscription apps or websites require original, appealing content to attract advertisers, subscription services — the kind the NBA will likely rely on more in the future — need it even more.

The first step, Cuban said, is the NBA’s first awards event, to be hosted by Drake and air on TNT on June 26. Cuban has also pushed the league to create its own version of soccer’s World Cup “as an alternative to the Olympics,” he said.

“Subscription sites are spending $10 billion-plus a year for content in an effort to gain and retain subscribers,” Cuban wrote in an email. “Of those billions of dollars, they still have to spend a lot of money to find hits (not in terms of total viewers, but rather shows that bring loyal subscribers).

“The competition between all the above will be greater, with greater consequences, than the competition between networks on traditional subscription TV ever was. And given that these subscription services are global and so is the NBA, I would say that it’s possible our revenue could grow significantly if the landscape then is similar to today.”

At the same time, the NBA has used smaller technology companies to remain at the forefront of how their youngest demographic interacts with the sport. Silver said he encouraged companies to use their content, to cultivate fans — and potential future subscribers.

“We think that’s been very successful,” Silver said. “And I think that’s part of why the league has been so popular. Especially over the last decade. I think it’s really by embracing the tech community and social media.”