By Eddie Gonzalez
Less than four years ago, the NFL sent their teams a series of memos to their teams with explicit instructions. Teams were no longer allowed to shoot video during games in stadiums to post or live broadcast on social media, nor were they allowed to post highlights from TV. Violating those rules could be punishable by fine up to $100,000. If that sounds archaic to you now, it was equally as short-sighted then: The NFL reversed course less than two months later, opening up team’s ability to utilize social media.
That jarring policy change - and subsequent scale back - runs counter to the NBA’s long held policy on social media. “We’re incredibly protective of our live game rights,” league commissioner Adam Silver said at the 2015 MIT Sloan Conference in Boston. “But for the most part, highlights are marketing.” The change in policy allowed the NFL to do what the NBA had been doing since the current wave of social media mainstays began: Promote and elevate the sport right in the palms of their fan’s hands.
Now, both leagues have created massive followings and an online culture of fandom, standom and analysis that may be one of their most lucrative barging chips going forward as both leagues prepare for new CBA battles and broadcast rights deals. Both leagues have dabbled with online broadcasts in recent years, with the NFL making live games available via Amazon and Twitch, and the NBA doing the same with Twitter, opening up the door for more extensive dealings in the future.
But what is a social media following and community worth in dollars? Both leagues will likely find out at their next wave of broadcast negotiations, where those online broadcasts can be used as leverage, presenting an alternative to the standard television broadcasts, an especially useful bargaining chip as viewership trends continue to drift towards cord cutting and online streaming. Those social media followings serve as a base for viewership, and a hub for advertising and a chance to interact more intimately with fans, in real time.
As the NBA’s TV ratings suffered a much-publicized dip in 2019-2020, their social media foothold has only gotten stronger. Before the NBA’s restart in Orlando this year, Silver touted the league’s "enormous global platform" often pointing to its "social media platform that reaches 1.8 billion people around the world" as a place and an opportunity where they could push forward messages of equality and seeking social justice. And that platform has only grown in the six weeks since he made that proclamation. Additionally, ESPN and Bleacher Report’s outward facing metrics for social media posts on the NBA have grown, even while ratings slipped this season, signaling a boost in relevance for the league even if traditional viewership slips.
ESPN bet big on continuing that growth company-wide when it poached former Bleacher Report staffer and House of Highlights founder Omar Raja in January. The hire included a handful of staffers accompanying Raja, and has paid dividends for “The Worldwide Leader” in the eight months since. In that time Sportscenter’s Instagram account has surpassed Raja’s former home HoH in followers, gaining more than three million followers since ESPN announced the hire in early January. An addition that prolific, and expensive as The New York Post previously reported Raja signed a “multimillion dollar deal” with the company, signals an increased commitment into the social media spaces, and with Raja’s reputation as a basketball-focused online personality, it’s them savvily betting big on basketball’s constantly growing social media presence as well.
The NFL has remained the ratings king in the US for years, and also continues to grow in those traditional metrics. But as their social media policies have gotten more lax, their prominence in online spaces has continued to grow. So-called “Tape cutters” like former player Brian Baldinger have turned entertaining analysis of game tape into a career, built on and largely still existing solely on social media. The NFL’s growth online does face some hurdles, as broadcast partners face various restrictions when it comes to sharing NFL content online, and are mostly relegated to simply reposting whatever the NFL posts on their own official accounts - with credit, of course. Even with the league scaling back their hard stance back in 2016, team accounts are still limited in the amount of game footage and plays that can be shared weekly, as well.
Still, even with various hiccups, the NFL has amassed over 67 million followers and subscribers across Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Youtube on their official, main brand accounts. That number reaches well into nine figures and beyond after you take into account their sub-accounts and the various team and player accounts.
What all those followers, subscribers, and likes offer to broadcast and ad partners is opportunity, and a specific audience that can be targeted with increased specificity and efficiency. If either league chooses to monetize their followings in their next wave of broadcast deals it could serve as a boon for both the league’s finances and the players salaries as the money trickles down and alters the salary cap as well.
Exclusive social media content could be another chip in negotiations. Behind-the-scenes content that lets fans get closer to the players and teams, shorts and even podcast segments that could exist in the form of a Twitter video or an IGTV will all become valuable in the next wave of content purchases. Even the boom of Instagram Live, as broadcasts like Verzuz Live – a “battle” between legendary musicians, both celebrating catalogs and competing song-for-song, utilizing intimate performances in dueling concerts – garner audiences in the millions. These types of experiences could become prime online real estate as both leagues look to cash in. With athletes increasingly using their own social media platforms to supersede media and speak directly to their followings, these types of intimate, exclusive bits of content could serve as a way for broadcast partners to bridge that gap, and once again serve as the liaison between athlete and fan that has gone missing with the rise of social media. What’s clear is these spaces have become more and more valuable in recent years, and the appraisal of those spaces is underway.
The NFL can renew their broadcast deal in 2022, the NBA’s current deal runs through the 2024-25 season, with their last deal announced two years before it began. These conversations are around the corner and probably already happening behind closed doors. The fans stand to benefit, as any type of monetization of these spaces guarantees more content and an increased fan experience.
The league and players also benefit as well, as the cash comes in but the risk for their broadcast and social media partners remains. Is the bubble going to burst eventually? What is this all worth, anyway? And what happens when fans put their phones down and resume “normal” life outside of their social media bubbles?
Time and time again we’ve seen platforms and mediums come and go. If, for instance, the NFL bets big on Twitter, just to see it’s most prominent and valuable users and tastemakers migrate to another platform, then what? Social media users and younger audiences have proven to be fickle and nomadic, and mass exoduses could come at the drop of a dime. When Rihanna chastises Snapchat for a distasteful ad, or Kylie Jenner wonders aloud if people still even use the app anymore, it could cost a billion dollars, rendering an app moot in the span of a few taps on a screen. Banking on a social media expansion from a particular platform or app, like the music industry did with Myspace in the late-2000s, could lead to massive sunk costs. Even with precious content for sale in a sellers market, both leagues could suffer if they bank on the wrong app or platform continuing to grow throughout a long-term deal. The mightiest of social media spaces, ripe with tradition and the comfort of familiarity, can be rendered inert by capricious user bases just as fast as you can hit the Woah for a new TikTok, leaving a content provider with a database full of gold meant to be housed in a non-existent vault.
Both sides will need to figure it out at the negotiation table soon, and billions of dollars will be exchanged, all for the most valuable currency in modern business: social media capital. The NFL and NBA made the savvy choice to buy in, and now they’re going to cash out in a major way.