To appropriate a catchphrase from the just-retired NBA troublemaker Rasheed Wallace: "Ball don't lie." According to the website Sports Fan Graph, the NBA has more than 6.7 million combined Facebook fans and Twitter followers, slam-dunking the almighty NFL's 2.5 million and absolutely posterizing MLB's measly 1.1 million. "Sports are communal experiences," says Melissa Rosenthal Brenner, the NBA's VP of marketing, in explaining why the league has been so active in social media. "This is a large cross-departmental effort, not an intern in a back room."
The NBA allows individual teams freedom to create their own programs and web content, while the other leagues dictate a centralized policy. "The NBA is ahead of other sports leagues," says Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, "because our players are smart and understand the value of social media, and the league has been able to leverage that." Twitter in particular seems ubiquitous among NBA ballers. "I truly believe it's the Shaq Effect," says Jeramie McPeek, the Phoenix Suns' VP of digital and a social-media evangelist. After the popular big man started tweeting in November 2008, his peers followed. All told, the NBA estimates that it has more than 54 million online fans.
The breadth of digital offerings has paid off like a Kevin Love outlet pass. Last season, the league's Facebook prowess drove fans to watch more than a billion videos at nba.com, a 45% increase over 2008-2009. Pushing content consumption is, of course, a key part of the operation, and there have been tangible results. Rosenthal Brenner points to last year's record-breaking All-Star Game as an example of web "fans" becoming paying customers, helping the league fill almost 109,000 seats at Dallas's Cowboys Stadium, the largest attendance ever at a basketball game.
The efforts have helped boost the TV audience as well. An internal NBA study found that almost half of fans and followers were prompted to watch more games by "must-see" updates and reminders, and 70% of those folks were promoting the games through word of mouth.
The upshot of all the polls, quizzes, top-five lists, and sweepstakes on the NBA's Facebook page (powered by a company called Fan Appz, which also works with other leagues) serves two other important business goals for the league. First, it feeds the NBA's global ambitions: nba.com has 13 dedicated international websites and more than 50% of its traffic comes from outside North America. More significantly, fans are now tuned into the league 12 months a year. In September, amid a full buffet of college and pro football, and with 12 teams still in the hunt for a spot in the baseball play-offs, 5,200 fans left nearly 800 comments about whether notorious head case Ron Artest should auction off his Lakers championship ring to benefit mental-health awareness.
No, that's not a joke. Nor is it an anomaly. Professional basketball is crazy about social media.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.