Inside the NBA’s UK content strategy

With over a billion fans, the NBA claims to be the most popular sports league on social media. But in the football-mad U.K. market, it’s a relative newbie. So now the league is making a full-court press across the pond.

At its office in Secaucus, New Jersey, NBA staffers sift through a firehose of live content. Every second of every game that’s beamed in from across the U.S. is tagged and categorized — ready to be packaged and pumped out across its social platforms, among other places.

“But the storylines need to translate,” explained Brianne Ehrenkranz, senior director of marketing at NBA EMEA. “We need to make our own local stories, quick-turn.”

With its international fan base growing, the NBA has invested in local content teams in its 13 regional offices. In the U.K., this core group can be up to seven people — including marketers, digital specialists, PR people — on any given day.

They’ve helped the league nearly double (42 percent) its Facebook followers in the 12 months leading up to December. It now has 1.3 million on its U.K. page. Ehrenkranz puts this success down to creating timely, personalized content that works for Brits — i.e., leveraging the market’s quirks, including that football madness.

Team allegiances are less of an issue here, because fans are an ocean away from any NBA team. Hence, highlights and best plays are prioritized over specific teams. On Facebook, the action is captured in nuggets of social video.

“What the NBA has done well is they’ve used digital platforms to get to non-core fans,” said Daniel Haddad, the director of commercial consulting at Octagon. While the sport has struggled historically in the U.K., he added, social media can help it sell. “The sport is extremely packable into bite-size elements, much more than football or cricket.”

In the U.K., sports media is dominated by big personalities and humor. So the NBA’s U.K. content is wrapped around that too. There are flashbacks to famous games from legends like Kobe Bryant and short, snappy interviews with stars like German player Dirk Nowitzki.

But the team also wants to leverage the highly engaged fan base of existing sports in the U.K. too. “We look to create storylines that mean something to a rugby or football supporter, tie what they love into something that they know,” said Ehrenkranz.

This takes various forms, from getting soccer players to take part in basketball challenges, to tapping the star power of high-profile athletes outside of basketball. A smattering of high-profile jersey-swapping has helped — like footballer Antoine Griezmann’s visit to New York. Lots of this content is seeded to news publications and partners, including the players themselves.

“The magic of working with another athlete is that they bring their audience with them,” Ehrenkranz said.

And other “off-court” content also includes videos like the one below, where player John Amaechi took fellow NBA legends Isiah Thomas, Dikembe Mutombo and Marcus Camby to afternoon tea during their trip to London.

While a lot of this work happens on NBA’s U.K. Facebook, there’s also a need to lay a “breadcrumb trail” for sports fans in the country. The NBA signed a multiyear deal with BT Sport in 2013. The broadcaster shows up to seven NBA games each week, alongside the Global Games franchise. This month, the NBA allowed BT Sport to showcase one NBA game on Facebook Live.

“Working with BT was really exciting,” said Ehrenkranz. “We think there’s a lot of potential to be able to get the game to fans.” She said the U.K. team is “looking at” more live streams in the coming year, as the viewership was so good, but she couldn’t reveal exact numbers (the video has since been removed from the platform.)

“The carrot at the end of the stick is pretty ambitious,” she said. “We want to reach everybody who has played basketball or saw a Lakers game on their holiday.”

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