Engagement Rises As The NBA Playoffs Unfold
The buildings are filling, the anticipation is rising, the stars are shining. It’s the 2021 NBA Playoffs, the culmination of 18 months of disruption, innovation, change and storytelling that has been historic in so many ways. From the stoppage of play a year ago March, to the “Bubble” championship by the Los Angeles Lakers last fall, to the late start and return to play last winter in the midst of social unrest, empty arenas and uncertainty of how the pandemic would affect play, the business, and engagement of the NBA, its players and its partners has been nothing but challenging. Then you factor in the angst amongst those who still rely on traditional “measurement,” and the pivoting to new ways of thinking and engagement, and you have a picture as we go deeper into the playoffs that is in some ways unclear but in many ways pointing to reinforce some things anyone in sport would hope to see. The content of the NBA and its teams and players continues to be diverse and engaging. Stars drive awareness and most importantly, even the casual, distracted fan will find his or her way to the conversation as we head towards the Finals. When looking at the numbers through the lens not just of the early rounds of these playoffs, but through the last year, the data backs up the excitement, on the court, in the stands, and growth of the NBA on a global scale.
Adam Silver’s team put great emphasis on the adjusted schedule the past two years, with the goal of delivering compelling and competitive playoff scenarios. One element into the mix was the NBA Play-In Tournament, which drew the ire of some players, but in reality, showed innovation and helped interest and competitive balance rise. The social numbers proved it out. This year's Play-In Tournament drew fan interest successfully, with participating teams' social content receiving 2.3x more impressions per post than the regular season. Additionally, it was leveraged efficiently on behalf of brands, providing $2.6K of exposure value per post. League-wide sponsors such as Michelob Ultra and Nike earned as much as 431% and 338% more value, respectively, per post during the Play-In round.
The best example of play-in success was surprisingly not from a big market team, it was from one of the smallest, the Memphis Grizzlies. Memphis, the sole NBA team to participate in a Play-In matchup each of the past two seasons, produced twice as much engagement per post. This year's playoffs in particular saw a greater increase in impressions (33%) and engagements (91%) relative to the Play-In games than the prior season, so it shows the value of why the Play-In can succeed and will probably be here to stay.
Then there is interest in the playoffs themselves. What the numbers show is that no matter what time of year the culmination of a season happens, the interest and the engagement rises. Teams are innovative in their season-long strategy, and this year, again without the benefit of in-person community events and fan interaction, teams were forced to be uber creative in engagement. All of that groundwork builds to the playoffs. How do we know? Over the past two seasons, playoff teams' Regular Season content generated 456K impressions and 7.5K engagements per post. During the playoffs, impressions increase by 13%, while engagements jump up by 23%. This doesn’t happen by just turning on a switch and going. It comes from analyzing, listening and engaging over the course of the season, and then capturing those casual fans when the interest is at its height. For those teams, from the New York Knicks to the Portland Trailblazers, that interest comes when the ball goes up to start the playoffs.
A great example on both fronts came with the end of last season. The Lakers' 2020 championship run accrued 32% more visibility during the Finals than the regular season, while their opponent the Miami Heat drew 90% more impressions and 284% more engagement on Finals content than they did over the 2020 regular season. As we move ahead in the playoffs, all that prep work with engagement will bear fruit, the victors truly get the spoils.
While we see teams like Portland and Memphis with innovative and engaged audiences, it also helps to have big market teams playing at the right time. The Lakers early exit, as well as that of the Celtics and Knicks, may not be as big a deal with national relevance today as it was back in a previous era where stars migrated to big markets. But the fact remains that big markets draw big local engagement and do its stars.
One of the best examples is the Brooklyn Nets. Brooklyn went deep and heavy under the leadership of owner Joe Tsai to bring big names to the second franchise in the New York area. And while it can be argued that the underdog and rebuilding Knicks stole some of the thunder during the regular season, the fact remains that the Nets Big Three, along with a proven star now on the squad like Blake Griffin, will resonate locally and nationally as the coming weeks play out. Their current matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks can help push the awareness and value needle even higher, and if they are able to move on, can really help advance the value of the franchise on the social side. How big is the influence of starpower on social performance? The Nets' have seen a 338% year-over-year increase in engagement on Playoff content thus far in the 2021 playoffs; the team's success, spearheaded by Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, has yielded 2.7x more visibility on each post during playoffs, and that will only rise. Even in the regular season, the Big Three led Nets produced $1,439 in average post value vs. $405 prior to the Bubble last year.
So, what do we see? Social engagement in the Playoffs, even under these unusual circumstances, are rising. Stars draw attention and investment in digital growth has kept fans engaged and intrigued as we head towards a July finish. Are there still unpredictable factors in play that could cause a downturn? Maybe, but in a time of great optimism in sport and a positive bounce for business, the NBA Playoffs are showing the trend we want, the social numbers are rising because of the investment made, and that’s a win for all.