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NBA Marketing Taking Customer Experience to the Next Level

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Matt Wujciak


Corporate executives and analysts are increasingly linking with world-class influential athletes and coaches to gain transferable skills and intel between the sports and business world. There are undoubtedly a number of measurable psychology factors that correlate with the sports and business realm, being used to increase employee performance, team chemistry, engagement, work ethic, level of competitive nature, and many more. 

But what’s also worth studying is the crossover between sports leagues and other industries - how professional sports leagues monetize their resources (branded athletes, which are essentially star employees with high turnover rates, diverse audiences, and various media platforms) with some of the most strategically prolific international marketing campaigns. 

The NBA has run a number of analytical studies that have shown how paramount social media is to its viewers, as well as where they spend their time on social media. According to digital marketing and social media management company, Zoomph, 83% of sports fans claim to check their social media accounts during a sports game. And less than one percent of NBA fans worldwide ever step foot in an arena. These stats may or may not be surprising, but what the NBA’s marketing department does with them definitely is. 

NBA viewership and ad campaigns

“We promote the posting of our highlights,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. "The highlights are identified through YouTube’s software, and when ads are sold against them, we share in the revenue. We analogize our strategy to snacks versus meals. If we provide those snacks to our fans on a free basis, they’re still going to want to eat meals — which are our games. There is no substitute for the live game experience. We believe that greater fan engagement through social media helps drive television ratings.” And it’s working. Although streaming options and changing audience habits have cut into TV viewership on the whole, NBA ratings have remained fairly stable (they were actually up in 2017-18) in recent years,  so not only is the NBA incorporating the right amount of teasers (snacks) at the right touch points to increase viewership and fan bases (meals), they’re also an international advertising agency that is sharing YouTube’s ad revenue. How else do you think the Warriors can afford that salary cap? 

Read More: How Nike Combines Customer Centricity with Brand Reputation to Stay on Top

In a strategy to rope in young Millennials and even younger Gen Z viewers (like college kids who are pretty content to watch highlights on social media rather than paying for a cable subscription to watch the full game), the NBA has experimented with short broadcasts on Facebook and Tencent (gaining traction in the Chinese market) to give international consumers a delicious antipasto to trigger their appetite. 

Player brands

But the NBA isn’t just winning the digital CX battle in the short term, they’re liquidating their most important assets, their employees. Something the NBA is doing better than anyone else is giving their athletes (employees) the freedom to voice their opinions and develop their personal brand, increasing individual player publicity and long term NBA revenue. More specifically, they offer their players freedom of speech protections to express their political views online to demonstrate that they are more than just basketball players and they have social opinions and tastes in music, fashion, and politics. In fact, when it comes to political controversy, some can’t seem to avoid the spotlight. Just ask LeBron, in the New York Mag’s article, LeBron Turns Out to Be Just Another Employee.

Read More: 4 Companies Using Machine Learning to Keep a Close Eye On Employees

 Individualizing a player’s brand is paying digital marketing dividends for the league as a whole. According to Statista, the NBA’s Facebook audience has gained 8 million Twitter followers and 9 million Facebook followers since 2016. 

“The level of authenticity and utility a team’s social media presence provides can heavily influence or even define the overall customer experience for some fans. That night’s starters and the latest info on travel to the arena, recognition via social visualizations and replies from the team, awarding prizes and sharing highlights are just a few of the countless touch points that occur every night via social media that shape the fan experience” Mike Hutchinson Senior Director of Digital Media for the Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals told Forbes.  

“Winning certainly makes everything easier, but as long as you listen to what your fans are telling you, both literally via their feedback and analytically based on what they’re consuming, it is possible to keep them engaged and consuming in the face of poor team performance,” Hutchinson added.

Experiential marketing 

During an onstage Q&A with ESPN reporter Holly Rowe at the Qualtrics X4 Summit in Salt Lake City, Silver discussed the rising stakes of the experience business and what the NBA is doing to optimize the viewing experience for its fans in the stands and through live streaming.

Read More: Why Experience Design Will Be Your Biggest Marketing Differentiator in 2025

According to one of our CCW digital writers, Kindra Cooper, Machine learning and AI analytics have made the NBA game format easier to scrutinize in order to increase customer centricity. For instance, the league changed its timeout rules to a shorter viewing experience and experimented with virtual reality broadcasts via Google Cardboard.

The NBA also caters to casual fans by offering $1.99 piecemeal packages for customers to just watch the fourth quarter rather than paying $199 for full-season access to League Pass, the official NBA live stream.  Because (no offense), I don’t think anyone needs to spend their Friday night watching the Knicks and Hornets duke it out on the boards or exchange air balls for two hours.