NBA Viewership in the Social Media Era

The emergence of sports on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter has changed the way viewers consume sports media. It is now a common occurrence for highlights to make their way onto social media within minutes, allowing people to stay connected with what is happening in the event. In the past, the only way to watch sports was to go to the event and watch live sports. This changed with the creation of the television, shifting the focus from the excitement of going to the game to the convenience of watching it in your own home. Within the past ten years, social media has poached the consumer from television and has placed almost real-time highlights of all exciting plays, interviews and highlights. This shift has lead to altered priorities within the National Basketball Association (NBA), potentially hindering real-time viewership by conventional television or game attendance.

The future of the NBA lies within the development of new and innovative technology. Instagram, Twitter and Facebook hold the top spot for most users, racking up nearly 3.5 billion combined users. Considering two out of every three Instagram users are between the ages of 18-29 and the NBA’s largest growth demographic are people between 18-34, the changing tide could have large implications for the success of the NBA as a business. The anticipated implications of sports consumption on social media can go two ways: People may not watch live basketball because they can see all of the important highlights on social media within minutes of something happening, or, more people may watch because they see the highlights on Instagram and are more interested in seeing the players do what they do best. The trend is not yet clear, but the future may hold a change that will disrupt how we watch sports.

The average NBA TV viewer is around 37 years old and 43% of its audience is under the age of 35. This may be important because the consequences of sports in social media may not have hit yet. Once the Generation Z, those who grew up only knowing social media, grows up and continues to use these platforms, the NBA live viewership may take a hit. The NBA will have to cater to the changing demands of consumer preferences.

Based off of follower count, SportsCenter (15 million), ESPN (14.4 million), House of Highlights (15.1 million) and the NBA (42.1 million) are the most popular professional basketball accounts on Instagram. Combined, these Instagram accounts can simultaneously reach upwards of 87 million people with just four posts. In fact, between SportsCenter, ESPN and House of Highlights, there is potential for 1,184,000,000 views on Instagram every month. The power and influence these accounts have is beyond the scope of the NBA alone, however, they must strategically control for third party accounts, such as House of Highlights, influencing their own success.

The content on these accounts ranges from pictures of players, videos of highlights and interviews with the best players in the world. House of Highlights is more tailored to highlights of players while ESPN and SportsCenter are more focused on key updates and top plays within sports. The diversity of interaction with fans has diversified with social media and the NBA now has a new dimension of fan interaction that they must handle. 

The personal accounts of NBA players cannot go unmentioned when talking about potential effects of social media on NBA viewership. The player’s ability to interact with fans via social media, particularly Instagram and Twitter, increases consumer interest and could potentially have effects on NBA viewership. LeBron James alone has more followers than the NBA account, giving one person more social influence than an entire institution. This type of connection by the players to the fans seems to create interest by his followers and therefore increasing likelihood of watching his games.

Data from TechCrunch and Statista

The growth of social media since the creation in 2004 has been consistent. It is hard to say whether the increase will be as consistent as the past, however, the capability of reaching 2.5 billion people on Facebook and 1 billion people on Instagram is a disruption in the manner we watch sports news and highlights. The NBA clearly recognizes the potential threat or benefit to their viewership and is ensuring that their influence is not lost. The NBA has the largest social media presence out of any professional sports league. The NBA Instagram account has 42.1 million followers, compared to 15.9 million people that follow the NFL account. The NBA seems to be embracing the use of social media and using it to gain exposure to the demographic of people who would not or cannot watch many games.

Data from SportsMediaWatch

Using data on NBA Finals average viewership from 1998 to 2018, we can see how the presence of social media has not particularly increased or decreased NBA viewership. However, the influence that the NBA has on its fans is much more personal. The NBA is now able to virtually interact with its fans by posting, commenting and showing live video of the players and coaches that the fans enjoy.  There are approximately 1.5 billion fan interactions across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube within a given season and according to Nielsen data, television viewership has increased by 17% from the 2016-2017 regular season and the “most watched start to a season” since 2012-2013. Not surprisingly, the growth is stemming from the 18-34 year old demographic — the ones that are interacting with the social media. This is convincing evidence that if social media is used correctly, it can create fans through the personal interaction.

Data from Statista

Although the data on viewership does not tell us much other than NBA viewership is volatile, this concept of a more personalized interaction with its fans may be contributing to the revenue generated by the NBA in recent years. The fans are able to virtually interact with the players, consequently creating a higher chance that the fans feel more personally linked to that player. Also, teams are able to interact with other teams — making the team feel more like a personal entity rather than an institution we cannot see into. For example, the Portland Trailblazers, Chandler Parsons and CJ McCollum were all exchanging messages and trash talk in 2017 and the Timberwolves and Warriors were exchanging jokes about their players in these Twitter exchanges. This person-person-company interaction makes the viewer think the team is more personal than ever before — potentially making a fan may be more likely to buy a player’s jersey or buy a ticket to the game.

The revenue increase since 2010, coincidentally the same year as the creation of Instagram, has clearly accelerated. According to the Nielsen Sports, an analysis of the 2017-2018 NBA season shows that social platforms were responsible for delivering 20% to 50% of the combined media value generated for sponsors. After analyzing the logo exposure on official league and team profiles, they determined that brands received $490 million worth of exposure from social media platforms during the 2017-2018 season. The ability to gain direct exposure to the primary audience has allowed the NBA to better target the demographics that can increase revenue. 

Although the presence of social media does not seem to increase or decrease the total viewership of the NBA, the increased viewership within the younger demographics may be explained by the increased use of social media in sports. The NBA must continue to embrace the potential impact social media will have on their business when Generation Z reaches the their average viewer age. All things considered, the increased virtual interaction between players and fans may be the fuel that propels the NBA to one of the most watched and valuable leagues in the world.

Note: All social media photos from and

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