By Eddie Gonzalez
“So we have our agreement, right?” asked Kamiah Adams, fiancée of Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal. “For every three hours of video games you play, you owe me a TikTok video.” Adams and Beal confirmed the bet live on TikTok and sealed the deal with a handshake. And just like that, the entire NBA world’s quarantine life converged into a 10-second clip. The convergence of gaming and social media – two pillars of modern existence – was the perfect depiction of the way the entire league spends their free time. If you catch a hooper at home, in the locker room, in the car, on a plane, or just about anywhere else other than on the court, you’re likely to find them thumbing through their phone, playing a video game, or both.
It stands to reason that NBA players were oddly positioned to remain relevant and thrive socially as the world shut down. On social media, they maintain some of the strongest followings amongst all athletes. LeBron James reigns as the most-followed NBA player on both Instagram and Twitter, with followings akin to superstar entertainers like Drake and Miley Cyrus. With 63.5 million Instagram followers, his follower total is four and a half times larger than his closest NFL competitor on Instagram, Odell Beckham Jr. (14.1 followers.) LeBron’s 45.9 million Twitter followers is over four times what NFL stars JJ Watt (5.5 million) and Russell Wilson (5.4 million) boast, combined.
For stars like James, it’s a chance to invite their fans into his world. He turned Taco Tuesday into his own weekly, star-studded event. Listening to music in his car is a gatekeeping moment of sorts, with artists pining for “A&R Bron” to spin their music to his massive following, and James even debuting exclusive, unreleased music from the likes of Nipsey Hussle. In early 2019, Def Jam tried to capitalize on the craze by commissioning James to executive produce 2 Chainz’s last album, Rap or Go to the League, which brought about mixed results and several memes.
Social media is where players morph from incredible, gravity-defying world-class athletes, to “regular Joes” who are embarrassing dads like everybody else. Stephen Curry practically gives the world his family scrapbook, while others like James and Beal can be found hilariously struggling to dance with their families in TikToks. And just as musicians use Instagram Live to battle one another in clashes of hits, NBA players are using the platform to talk hoops with one another, giving their fans a glimpse into what are normally private conversations.
Players have infiltrated the world of gaming as well, with Ben Simmons and Josh Hart building up respectable Twitch followings of nearly 50,000 followers each. More importantly, with so much free time to hone their skills, they’ve made strides as competitive gamers in the ever-growing world of esports.
Brands are capitalizing on the trends. Slam Magazine hosted a Call of Duty tournament featuring players like Simmons, Hart, Donovan Mitchell, and Myers Leonard. ESPN has devoted primetime coverage to an NBA 2K tournament featuring the likes of Kevin Durant, Trae Young, Devin Booker, Zach LaVine, Demarcus Cousins, and more, with the winner of the two-week tournament earning $100,000 for a coronavirus charity of their choosing.
As branded content continues to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for influencers, content creators, and big brand accounts on social media, the obvious next step will be for players to capitalize. Whether it’s branded content of their own, sponsorships, product placement, or partnerships, that’s the next frontier as hoopers continue to flourish in these spaces. Everybody has a brand now, and what better place to benefit from that brand than on an app that shares to hundreds of millions of people on a daily basis?
Why is the NBA the league with the most athletes thriving in this climate? Age may be a factor. While the NFL’s stars must play at least three years of college ball, and baseball players will spend years in the minor leagues before making it to the show, today’s NBA stars have been active on social media since their teenage years and often hit the league as early as nineteen. They’re digital natives, and it’s likely most fans first discovered them on social media, thanks to high school mixtapes and social media. Just think about how long the world has been watching Zion dunk on people or how long you’ve been scrolling through your phone, stumbling on Lonzo Ball draining deep threes with his dad hyping him all the way. It feels like you know them personally by this point.
Growing up under those circumstances has left NBA players confident existing within the digital space. They’re comfortable opening themselves up for fans, garnering organic followings with the aforementioned sense of intimacy. They resonate in ways other athletes can’t, and as brands seek the unique sort of authenticity that you can’t manufacture or force, NBA players have been building that authenticity for years.
As such, they’ve become trendsetters with the way users utilize their social media platforms. So as they gravitated to TikTok with their own brand of goofy attempts to dance, skits, PSAs and whatever else their creative minds can conjure up, their fans have followed. Their migration to the app has coincided with TikTok’s own massive growth in the past six months. From September 2019 to February 2020, the app’s downloads have nearly doubled, from 60.3 million to 112.9 million according to Social Media Today. That was enough to make Tik Tok the most downloaded non-game app in the world in February, according to Sensor Tower.
In that sense, NBA players are striking while the iron is hot. Sixers rookie Matisse Thybulle has gone from relative unknown to entertaining TikTok maven in a matter of weeks thanks to his unique and humorous videos straight from his apartment. His TikTok following is already three times his Twitter following. While it’s still a little more than half of what he’s garnered on Instagram, the latter audience was built up over the course of eight years. On TikTok, he garnered nearly 130,000 followers and almost 1 million likes in just one month, and with only 12 posts. Even an elder statesman like Paul Millsap has garnered a bit of a reputation for his entertaining exploits on the app. While his following is a modest 5,577, Sports Illustrated recently named him the NBA’s best TikToker, thanks to his adorable dog, his random magic tricks and stuff like his 5-year-old giving him buckets, viewed through a first person view and a fish-eye lens.
As we continue to be welcomed into their everyday lives, many players will embody that shred of normalcy everybody is seeking in one of the most abnormal times in human history. What social media has shown us is NBA players are just as bored as the rest of us and get talked into making goofy videos with their kids, or wives, or fiances, or just want to make them themselves. They’re appearing more outwardly normal than ever before without the jerseys, bright lights and the pressure to win. What we’re left with are people: Entertaining and likable people.
Yes, their social media savvy and comfort with the various platforms may go a long way to explaining how they’ve amassed such large followings. But ultimately it will be their comforting and enjoyable personalities that put people at ease, convince them to stay and continue to make NBA hoopers some of the biggest forces in the world on all of social media going forward. It’s a responsibility they seem ready to bear, and they’re using that power to help the world get through one of the strangest and most harrowing set of circumstances most have ever seen. And they’re doing so one Woah, Savage Challenge, Renegade, or Toosie Slide at a time.